Are Machines Becoming More Like Us? Or Are We Becoming More Like Them?

I was out walking when my husband texted me with exciting news that clearly couldn’t wait till I got home: a prediction that mangoes, which sadly do not grow in our home state, would be cheap this summer—or at least, cheaper.

I let out an (internal) “Eeeep!”, then pressed the message. My thumb was moving to select a heart when I stopped to consider my response. I stopped because lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about how machines are becoming more like us—but also wondering: are we becoming more like them?

Unsettled, I released the heart and typed my own reply: “Eeeep!” Sophisticated? No. Human? Yes.

At first glance “reactions”—the selection of emojis we can “stick” to certain messages and posts—might appear to enrich our text-based communication. In the realm of Facebook they mean that, rather than having only two ways to respond to a post—commenting, or clicking “like”—users have six more: an angry face, a happy face, a laughing face, a “care” symbol, a “wow”, and the ultimate expression of love or approval, a heart.

There’s more choice, but is there more nuance? The more I think about it, the more “reactions” frustrate me. I feel like a child playing with a set of stamps—only unlike physical stamps on physical paper, there’s no way of knowing whether they’ve been punched emphatically or half-heartedly, by a human, or a machine.

Yes, we can still choose to “use our words”, but when time is short, as it so often seems to be, when short-cuts do the job, we often don’t. Further, now that “reacting” to a message with a laugh or heart is so commonplace—and so incredibly easy—many might expect it. Some might even find its absence (and the absence of the dopamine hit that might accompany it) rude or even hurtful: Call themselves a friend? When they won’t even spare a second for a click?

The risk of causing offence can rise when communicating with a group rather than an individual. If I post or text some good news to a group, and a friend comments with kind words, I might click “love”. If I return to it the next day and a string of other friends have added kind words too, do I work through the list, giving each a heart? It feels so mechanistic. Do I grade the “best” with “love”, the rest with “like”, instead? This too could cause some hurt—and feels ridiculous.

Giving such trivia a second thought also feels absurd. In all likelihood the only one scrutinizing my actions is myself. Even if this weren’t the case, whatever I might click or fail to click—however my words, or lack of them, might be misread—those who really know me, who really are my friends, will still know what I mean; or at least, what I wouldn’t mean. The problem is me—overthinking it.

Then again, is it trivial to worry about being misunderstood? Shouldn’t we take communication with people we care about seriously? It seems right to worry about acts and omissions that, though trivial, might sting.

Part of being human is being vulnerable, is having thoughts and feelings that aren’t always logical, that we can’t always control. It’s natural to desire genuine connections with others, to care about what they might think and feel, to want to understand them, and to be understood. Perhaps those moments where I fail to simply stamp repeatedly are not a sign of neurosis, but proof I am more human than machine. Perhaps to push such worries to one side—to automatically select and then move on—is to interact in ways that are less than fully human.

One mechanical exchange might be insignificant, but the many that build up each day are not. They create patterns and habits, impressions and assumptions. The more we settle for stamps—or worse, predictive text—the more normal “settling” will become. And if, when deprived of more authentic communication, we cease to long for it, it won’t be because the short-cuts are better. It will be because we’ve forgotten how dramatically worse they are—how wondrous and rewarding, how effective and how moving, communicating in the flesh and in real time, can be.

If simplistic, gamified communication starts to satisfy us, and to simplify the way we express complex thoughts and feelings, might it start conditioning us to think and feel less deeply too? Perhaps, with the advance of technology designed to connect us, our emotional intelligence and relationships will regress. If they do, we can only blame its makers and its users—we can only blame ourselves.

There’s a sense in which my reply to “the mango text” was simple, even primitive. But I’m sure that when my husband read my “Eeeep!” he could hear my voice. It was a trivial interaction—so many are—but it was a human one. It was mediated via a machine, but it wasn’t mechanistic.

It was trivial, but even our most trivial interactions and instincts will, as they accumulate, shape our relationships and perceptions—in ways that mean we become more or less understanding, feel more or less affection.

What authentic online communication looks like will depend on the individuals interacting. For some it will involve reactions, for others it won’t. For some, spontaneity, for others, time to think. It will look different because there is no ideal formula, because we have different goals and preferences, and because we might communicate in different ways to accommodate different friends.

We’re not machines working from an algorithm, we’re unique beings with unique strengths, limitations, preferences and personalities, communicating to unique beings with unique strengths, limitations, preferences and personalities.

I still use reactions. They have their benefits. But I don’t use them unthinkingly, or in place of what I really want to say. Communicating in line with who we are and what we value won’t always be the most efficient way of interacting, but I’m willing to bet it will be the most fulfilling. The more we make it a priority, the less like our machines we’ll be.