Learning is going to be made up much more quickly than the social skills. A year of skills—I approach you, you approach me, we circle each other, we start to sniff each other out, you share a secret, I share a secret, all that—that’s a very long year, as opposed to losing a year of algebra. These are the costs of the pandemic. Not all children have suffered as much as other children. Some parents and siblings and “pods” have made up for some of it. But I think this is going to be a very different cohort, with a lot of remedial work around love and attention needing to be paid to them.
That reminds me of my favorite thing that I love to hate: Artificial intelligence to chat with them is really not the answer. One of the funniest things that happened to me during the pandemic was that I’m called by this New York Times reporter who tells me how, much to my astonishment, everyone—millions of people, he says—are downloading this avatar who will be your therapist, or your best friend. It’s called Replika.
Oh, yeah, I know Replika.
He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you’re talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”
I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you’re fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.
You arrive at a similar conclusion in your new book. You’ve written many books, but this one is the first that’s entirely about you and your life story. Why did you decide to write it?
I had this belief, from being such an outsider in my own family, that there was always a story behind the story. That outsider status has given me a kind of superpower, because it’s made me realize that there is always another story to tell. When people said that the computer was just a tool—and people said that to me for 20 or 30 years—I would always say, “OK, but what else? The computer is a tool, but what else?” The book is really about saying, well, what about me? What’s the story behind my career? I decided to use some of the things I had learned studying other people to study my own life. I had always said that thought and feelings shouldn’t be studied on separate floors. But then, what about me? What if I insisted I put my thoughts and feelings on the same floor?