SXSW – South by Southwest
March 12, 2023 – 2:26 in the morning
Have you ever talked to someone for hours about deep topics and all you got was an “ouch” or the slightest spark of attention? Or have you ever been somewhere where everyone around you was focused on their cell phones rather than human connection? If so, then you know what “artificial intimacy” is, a concept introduced by psychotherapist, author, and podcaster, Esther Perel, during SXSW 2023.
Podcast host Where should we start? (Where do we begin?) i How’s work? (How’s business going?) used his space at one of the biggest festivals of innovation, technology and creativity to criticize technology, especially artificial intelligence. To do this, he played with words between artificial intelligence and artificial intimacy. He even uses it in the very title of his presentation: “The Second Artificial Intelligence: The Rise of Artificial Intimacy and What It Means for ‘Us'”.
At the beginning of her lecture, Esther explained that recently a man, who could not consult her, decided to recreate her virtually, in order to receive psychological guidance. “Part of me was flattered, part of me felt like plagiarism. Another part was deeply concerned about the clinical and ethical implications of this,” he said.
The psychotherapist’s concern is justified, given that in recent years she has been dealing with the transformation of mental health, therapy and relationships with consumer technologies. According to him, technology influences and changes human behavior, and consequently, notions of intimacy are shaped from it. “We talked a lot about artificial intelligence. But what about other artificial intelligence? To what extent is artificial intelligence a channel for artificial intimacy?”
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The creator of his AI version reported that after sending a text message to a virtual Esther, he achieved “the greatest clarity he’s ever had about his relationships.” This caused concern for Esther.
To explain why this fact is troubling, she used the concept of another psychologist, Todd Essig. He says that when people receive mental health treatment online, they are often just as satisfied as they would be in person. However, the quantitative results are not as good. “Patients are satisfied because they lower their expectations of empathy, intimacy, to match what technology can provide. They received less effective care, but they don’t recognize the difference,” added Esther.
However, what worries the psychotherapist most is not the artificial intimacy with the bot, but how much digitally enabled relationships reduce expectations of intimacy between people. That is, how technology and the increasingly intensive use of the Internet interfere with intimacy between people.
No risk, no learning
Interestingly, Esther does not demonize technology, on the contrary. She understands its good points, such as the ease of connecting people during a pandemic, for example. But at the same time, he pointed out that the benefits it brings, such as a calendar meeting alert or Spotify music recommendations, may not be useful. “I like to have my discomfort removed, but at the same time, being uncomfortable doing things you don’t end up enjoying and taking risks are some of the ways we learn who we are and who we aren’t.”
Esther understands that experimentation and failure are essential to the development of human identity. And that when risks are eliminated, learning opportunities are eliminated with them. “Our increasingly predictable technologies, while solving many of life’s greatest inconveniences, also make us unwilling and unable to tolerate the inevitable unpredictability of human nature, love, and life.”
This automation of life brought by technology turns intimacy into a “simple and commercialized process” which, according to psychotherapists, is full of mistakes. She confirmed that the unique feature of human intimacy is that when people truly allow themselves to get to know each other, they also get to know new parts of themselves.
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zero and one
Finally, Esther criticized artificial intelligence in the sense in which many people criticize it, namely to the extent that it only knows what it is trained for, has no convictions or personal problems, does not know how to read the context of situations. “Reduces complex problems to zeros and ones.”
Dilemmas like divorce, having children, entering or leaving a relationship are complex and cannot be solved by artificial intelligence. “I suggest that we stop treating these dilemmas as technical problems that have clear solutions,” the psychotherapist pointed out.
Many people live with difficult questions that have no right or wrong answer. For Esther, any decision made in a situation like this will have consequences for the people involved, who will have to bear them. “Every choice carries the risk of an option not chosen,” he adds, pointing out that in this context, screens are false promises that it is possible to choose without the experience of grieving the loss of what was not chosen.
Esther understands that the current focus of human beings on trying to get rid of big obstacles and small inconveniences makes people’s lives easier, but at the same time leaves them unprepared for everyday inconveniences. Despite this, the psychotherapist ended her lecture optimistically, explaining that intimacy is born with a person, in fact, it comes from the mother’s womb.