Why Machines Will Never Feel Empathy: A Q&A With MIT’s Sherry Turkle
The pathbreaking MIT professor on her new memoir, and the past, present, and future of our efforts to make technology feel human
In the fall of 1976, Sherry Turkle was recruited to the faculty of MIT to join what would soon become the program on Science, Technology, and Society — one of the nation’s first. After having written a book on French psychoanalysis — a “sociology of the sciences of the mind,” as she describes it — Turkle was fascinated with the cultural forces that shift our thought.
So when she encountered computers for the first time, she had one pressing question on her mind: How would these new machines change us?
Turkle has spent the last four decades investigating that question as aggressively and rigorously as anyone alive. She is the founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and the author of the influential books, The Second Self and Alone Together. Turkle has spent her career captivated by the transformative power of online identities and was an early critical voice cautioning that the machines that we had come to see as objects to use would eventually turn us into objects.
The result of all this, argues Turkle, has been a decline in empathy. And in her new memoir The Empathy Diaries, she explores how her own interest in empathy is deeply personal, and how that informed her thinking about technology and society.
When her mother remarried soon after divorcing her father, Turkle was instructed to use her stepfather’s last name, Turkle, instead of her biological father’s name, Zimmerman.
She kept the secret for decades. The experience taught Turkle the power of identity and the costs of a lack of empathy. “I had to figure out how to be empathic to the people in my family and try to figure out — what might be their motivations?” she said. “I tried to put myself in their place; empathy became a survival strategy.”
OneZero caught up with Turkle to discuss how her lifelong quest to understand her roots has affected her work, what it was like to be a woman at MIT in the ’70s, and why robo-therapists are just no good.