Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bob Vila Would Never Club a Robotic Baby Seal

...Because they're too cute apparently. I must admit that, having heard the story before viewing it on the web, I imagined the robotic baby seals to be cuter than they really are.

Now part of me thinks that when we are using a robotic pet to comfort the elderly, we have really, really lost our way.

But the truth is, I am a technological grumpy-old-man, and the war between the young and old regarding technological integration (that is, integration of technological into the domain we would have reserved for "life") is being lost every time a new baby is born.

Having had my formative years before the internet and instant messaging and ubiquitous wireless technology, the notion of asking someone out on a date (or ending a relationship) via text message or posting all of your personal information on a MySpace page strikes me as moderately ridiculous.

But to my own self I must be true: I am a fossil. Human beings, when presented with these technologies (among others) see nothing unusual - we integrate every technology we develop into our lives. I don't think my 2-year-old nephew sees any difference between the remote control and wooden blocks. They are all simply objects to be explored, touched, chewed on, and mastered until, like all tools and technologies, they are an extension of him, part of the fabric of human life.

My negative reaction initial to robotic seal pets* (besides being caused by a lack of coffee) comes from a line in the sand that is crossed when technology starts to affect us emotionally. But this is a ludicrous line in the sand; all technology affects us emotionally, even ones that are not supposed to. (Tell me there isn't enough hate caused by Microsoft Windows Vista to start a war!!) We connect emotionally to our cars and computer programs, perhaps because we connect emotionally to everything.

And robots don't have a monopoly on button-pushing. In "The Truth About Dogs" Stephen Budiansky argues that dogs are fundamentally parasites. A successful parasite attaches to its host using a property of the host so integral to its survival that the host cannot "close the door" on the parasite . In the case of dogs, by triggering all of the responses that make us care for children, they obtain food, shelter, medical care, toys, belly rubs, and in some cases trips to spas. If we didn't think dogs were cute, we'd probably toss our babies out on the street too.

As Lori and I sit around blathering about how cute it is that the dog is rolling around under the bed or that the cat approves of the new sofa (as shown by sleeping on it) we realize that we have animals in the house that have reduced our mental functioning, and in the process, mooched hundreds of pounds of pet food. If Martians came to do a documentary on human culture I am sure the narrator (who would sound just like Morgan Freeman) would say:

"This human pair has become infecting by a dog and a cat. The animals play on the humans nesting instincts, diverting their normal course of development. The humans do not yet have offspring, but instead foster the dog and cat."

In the end I think Daniel Ariely's view makes sense; we humans are hopelessly hard-wired for some irrational behavior. Whether it's another species that wants a free meal, or a robotic baby seal engineered by researchers, we are going to attach to things emotionally whether it makes any sense or not. We can't change who we are. All we can do is be aware of our human heritage and navigate the murky waters of technological change as best we can.

* If someone makes a robotic baby seal with laser beams mounted on its head, I will be the first to buy it!

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