Robots and the People Who Love Them by Eve HeroldRobots and the People Who Love Them by Eve HeroldRobots and the People Who Love Them by Eve Herold

Robots and the People Who Love Them, by Eve Herold, is a solid look at the potential impact of social robots on our lives, though more timely research and a more focused structure would have improved the book.

Herold’s focus here is not on “robots”, but on social robots, those that we will interact with regularly and often closely. Think robots in the fields of elder care, education, child care, and companion robots (both the platonic sort and the sexbot sort). Herold does occasionally discuss robots more generally and devotes a whole chapter to military robots, but mostly the focus remains pretty tight. Beyond chapters focused on the above noted fields, other sections include but are not limited to explorations of the uncanny valley, our seemingly universal and inevitable desire to anthropomorphize non-humans, the development of AI and its nuances, the fear of robots/AI turning on humanity, whether robots/AI might become sentient, and the legal and ethics, questions that might arise in terms of bestowing “personhood” rights to robots.

The reader is treated to a number of intriguing bits of information, such as the large number of Roomba owners who name and genderize their cleaning robot, the quite depressing statistics on loneliness and its effects, the roots of the uncanny valley effect and where the line gets drawn between appealing, tolerable, and creepy, the high percentage of children who ascribe emotions to even non-humanoid robots, and the way even adults will tend to defer to a robot’s judgement. Some of the most fascinating stories center around companion robots, ranging from the story of how an early 20th Century artist obsessed with Alma Mahler (yes, that Mahler’s widow) contracted for an exact replica of her that he took to the opera and cafes to the number of Japanese men who have “married” holographic female characters.

Eve Herold

Eve Herold

Throughout all of this, Herold keeps attuned to how these developments might affect, for good or ill, our own individual self-development and the development of human society as a whole. For instance, Herold points out the clear benefits of elder care robots that help the elderly age in place for longer and ameliorate the loneliness that often comes with old age, but also worries that family members might “off-shore” care to robots, cutting down their own interactions with their older relatives and thus increasing their alienation. Similarly, the book acknowledges that sex/companion bots might relieve loneliness on a short-term or surface level, but argues they are also likely to stunt emotional growth, prevent attempts to engage with real people, and possibly allow for the transfer of undesirable or even dangerous behavior (cruelty, violence) toward the robot companion to actual humans. Herold also points out the hugely asymmetrical gender impact of such robots, noting women are both far less likely to show interest in such robots and also far more likely to suffer the negative consequences of them. Herold’s discussion of all these matters is often thoughtful and thought-provoking, though at times I wished for a more critical eye regarding some of the studies or arguments, as when for instance they cite Freudian analysis or Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, which has seen a lot of criticism since its inception.

Two more pernicious issues are structure and timeliness. The book can get repetitive at times, and after a while it felt like we kept circling back to the same underlying discussions with regard to impact, such as the idea that self-development might be stunted by our interactions with robots. The other issue, and one I found particularly disappointing, was how much of the cited research was at least five years old, with a number of studies and citations falling between 2012 and 2015. Five years is a lifetime in technology and ten years an eon, and I would have liked to have seen more studies from 2020 and later. The only chapter that had that level of timeliness consistently was the one on the military use of robots. The age of citations became so noticeable to me I actually stopped reading to doublecheck the publication dates. I have no idea if this is the case or not, but it felt as if Herold had researched the topic pre-Covid, got delayed by the epidemic, and then published afterward without much updating of research save for the military chapter.

In the end, neither problem is a dealbreaker. The book remains an informative and worthy read, though some streamlining would have helped. The bigger issue is it probably won’t be long before a much more timely work on the same topic comes out, making Robots and the People Who Love Them more of a transitional text likely to be soon eclipsed, even if Herold’s general explorations re human behavior/responses are likely to remain true.

Published in January 2024. There’s one universal trait among humans, it’s our social nature. The craving to connect is universal, compelling, and frequently irresistible. This concept is central to Robots and the People Who Love Them. Socially interactive robots will soon transform friendship, work, home life, love, warfare, education, and nearly every nook and cranny of modern life. This book is an exploration of how we, the most gregarious creatures in the food chain, could be changed by social robots. On the other hand, it considers how we will remain the same, and asks how human nature will express itself when confronted by a new class of beings created in our own image. Drawing upon recent research in the development of social robots, including how people react to them, how in our minds the boundaries between the real and the unreal are routinely blurred when we interact with them, and how their feigned emotions evoke our real ones, science writer Eve Herold takes readers through the gamut of what it will be like to live with social robots and still hold on to our humanity. This is the perfect book for anyone interested in the latest developments in social robots and the intersection of human nature and artificial intelligence and robotics, and what it means for our future.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.