“Just Like a Real Dog”

September 18, 2008 at 7:23 pm 1 comment

Today’s New York Times reports:

IN the 1930’s, when the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget quizzed children to find out if they could tell the difference between living creatures and inanimate objects, he concluded that they defined life by figuring out which objects could move by themselves, without an outside push or pull.

In the last 20 years or so, that particular theory of Piaget’s has been almost completely overturned by research showing that young children are not fooled by things like garage doors that move by remote control. That is, children can tell the difference between animals and machines even if the machines appear to move by themselves.

Now children are encountering a new category of objects, things that seem to possess intentions, preferences and others characteristics previously reserved for living beings.

In an age where robotics and virtual reality create increasingly believable simulations of living beings – do we risk raising a generation of children who find it difficult to differentiate between reality and fantasy – and who have a vastly different idea than we do of what it means to be alive?

Dr. Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her research assistant Andrea Audley are conducting ground-breaking research on our evolving relationships with nonbiological objects.  According to the Times:

In a research project still in its early stages, Professor Turkle and Ms. Audley have visited after-school centers in the Boston area to watch the ways children 5 to 10 years old play with Furbies. They have also sent Furbies home with children and asked the children and their parents to keep diaries of the interactions.

Again and Again, Ms. Audley said, the researchers have asked the children: ”Is it alive? Is it like a real pet? Does it know you?”

”Strikingly,” Ms. Audley said, ”often the answer they settled on was, ‘It’s not alive in a human or animal kind of way, but in a Furby kind of way.’ ”

Watching children assign personality and emotion to toys is nothing new for children, but this category of ”sort of alive” breaks new ground. It is showing up more and more as a first generation of children plays with interactive toys that need attention and nurturing.

Is developing a new concept of what it means to “be alive” an adaptive response to a world where technology plays a greater role in our lives every day — or will this new, nebulous boundary between animals and robots, the worlds of the living and the pseudo-living, change the way we view living things in a new – and potentially maladaptive way?

Empathy plays a key role in how we understand and interact with other living beings.  When we talk about empathy, we generally refer to it in one of two ways: 

The first is the capacity of a person or other cognitive being to “read” and respond correctly to social signals and situations.

The second refers to the capacity of a person or other cognitive being to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotional state.  Colloquially – to walk a mile in their shoes.

How will our society’s experience and understanding of empathy change when that someone we are empathizing with is alive in “a Furby kind of way?”  When it doesn’t really  need to be fed, housetrained, or exercised, doesn’t age — and doesn’t die (or who, if he does “die”, can be replaced with a near exact copy).

Too many of us have already fallen for the twin allures of immediate gratification and entitlement.  It’s not enough to just want to have it all anymore, we’re entitled  to have it all – and not to have to wait for it.  The problem is – feeling like you’re entitled to immediate gratification has a tendency to reduce or eliminate your sense of empathy.  After all… caring takes time.  And effort.

A friend forwarded me a post today with this “puppies for sale” ad:

Have you ever wanted a dog but stopped yourself from getting one because:

* * * 1. *You’re allergic to their fur?
* * * 2. *You don’t have the energy or space for a big dog?
* * * 3. *Yappy dogs annoy you?
* * * 4. *You travel too much?
* * * 5. *You don’t have time to train a dog?
* * * 6. *You’re a cat lover?

* * * *Well I think I’ve got the solution for you! I have 6 beautiful puppies looking for a home!  And they’re perfect for you because:
* * * 1. *They don’t shed!
* * * 2. *Fully grown they weigh between 6 and 10 lbs!
* * * 3. *They don’t bark!
* * * 4. *They fit in any size doggy travel bag and are wonderful travel companions!
* * * 5. *They are very quick learners!
* * * 6. *They’re way better than a cat!

* * * *Claim yours today! They will be available to take home on ______. They are Shitzapoo’s, and they will be all caught up on shots and meds by the time they can go home with you. I own both of their parents and can assure you that the puppies are being well taken care of, and obviously come from a good home. ****

I don’t even know where to begin a critique of this ad.  There are so much ignorance on display here – the mind boggles.  So, apparenly, now even people who:

x x x   Don’t like dogs
x x x   Are too lazy to train a dog
x x x   Are too lazy to groom a dog or clean their house and –
x x x   Are more interested in a fashion accessory than a relationship…

Should  have dogs too. 

Yikes. Maybe the idea of pet robots isn’t so bad after all.  In a time when so many people appear to have already  lost their senses of empathy and mindfulness – the danger of growing up confused about what life is and is not may be balanced by one great big positive benefit – that careless and uncaring people can go out and buy companions who aren’t capable of suffering… 

Sega's "Dream DogTX"

Sega's "Dream DogTX"

Given the potentially culture-changes effects they could have on us – the interesting question becomes – how will robotic companions change us.  Again from the Times:

Professor Turkle said. ”The new objects sidestep arguments about what is inherent in the machines and play instead on what they evoke in us.”

Mortality has traditionally defined the human condition, Professor Turkle said. ”A shared sense of mortality has been the basis for feeling a commonality with other human beings,” she said, ”a sense of going through the same life cycle, a sense of the preciousness of time and life, of its fragility.

When we live with beings who don’t go through the same cycles of birth, life and death that we do; who can be conveniently turned off or put into storage when we don’t have time for them; and who can be repaired or replaced when they malfunction – will we also lose some part of our sense of the beauty and fragility of real lives?


Entry filed under: behavior science, dogs, pets, science. Tags: , , .

Remembering Prunella While We Were Out

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. fred  |  September 30, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    There are a lot of people who would be better suited to owning stuffed toys instead of real dogs, dolls instead of real children. How do you teach someone to have compassion for real life when that person holds no such emotion but only the shallow and fleeting desire to fondle something cute and cuddly? Better a battery operated toy suffer the long term neglect and abuse reigned on it by such a person than a living creature.

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