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Up Front

MPAA Rating
July 18, 2011
Paul Asay
Robot, I

Robot, I

We have a Furby zombie somewhere under our house.

You remember Furbys, right? They were all the rage back around the turn of the millennium—robotic toys wrapped in fur that blinked and wiggled their ears and, if you spent enough time with them, even learned English. Some folks thought they were kinda cute, my wife among them. "Look!" she'd squeal like a seventh-grade girl in a grove of unicorns. "He laughs when you tickle him!"

I always thought our Furby was a little more creepy than cute—the way he'd blink and coo when I walked into the room, or how he'd make me feel guilty for not petting him enough, or how I'd wake up at 2 a.m. and find the thing perched on my nightstand, holding a butcher knife in his little beak.

So it was something of a relief when the Furby's batteries finally ran down. My wife was unwilling to part with the thing, though, so for months he sat on a bookshelf, staring at us lifelessly with those cold, plastic eyes. After several years of dutifully displaying his corpse, I finally packed him in a box (when my wife was away) and stuffed it in our crawl space.

But just as I was backing out of the dark and the dust, I heard a sound that raised my hair and chilled my blood.


The Furby—after years of dormancy—had apparently come back to life. And he wanted to play.

There's a lesson in this, I thought to myself, sometime after I stopped screaming and running. And now, years later, I think I know what it is. As robots and machines grow ever more a part of our lives, it's easy for us to treat them as more than mere mechanical constructs built to suit us. We tend to humanize them, turn them into something they're not. We imagine and invest in them emotion, personality, even motivation. And that can be—well, rather frightening.

Do You Read Me, HAL?
We humans are social creatures. We're wired for relationship, so maybe it's not too surprising that we grow to "love" things that aren't capable of loving us back. I've spent so much time behind the wheel of my Honda Fit that it feels like more than just a "car." I've come to see it more like a companion—not a big talker, mind you, but supportive and responsive and always seemingly glad to see me. I'm confident of this because my Fit's headlights always flash when I push the unlock button. They wouldn't have to flash, you know. The doors could unlock without any sort of accompanying affectionate display. So in return I wash my Fit more often than I might otherwise—for its benefit, not mine. It just feels right. A good scrubbing, after all, always makes a car feel better about itself.

OK. I'll face facts. Blinking headlights aside, my Fit has all the emotion of the asphalt it drives over. Any "relationship" I have with my car is very one-sided (which, now that I think of it, sums up my dating life in high school, too).

So it's no surprise that as technology has gotten better, savvy engineers (who also had trouble with relationships in high school) are finding new ways to make the things we love seem to love us back. The Furby was a rudimentary example: When you played with a Furby, you got a reaction from it—a giggle or a gasp or even a few words here and there. Moreover, it would sometimes make demands of you. If you've ever heard a Furby say "yoo?" the Furby's essentially asking, "Why will you not play with me today?"

This, of course, proves that the guilt trip is an integral part of even the most rudimentary of relationships.

In her alarmingly fascinating book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, MIT professor Sherry Turkle discusses various iterations of folk-friendly tech, from the robotic dog AIBO (You can teach it tricks!) to the seal-like Paro (used in hospitals and nursing homes to comfort the sick and elderly) to Domo, an MIT creation specifically designed to interact with humans and learn from their environment. All are intended to draw us into a relationship—even though these constructs are no more capable of real thought or emotion than my Fit is.

We all know this … on some level. And yet, when we interact with these robots, we treat them not as things, but as beings: Not human beings, perhaps—but not merely machines either.

Turkle talks about how hard children work to make the AIBO "like" them, and how nursing home patients will confess their innermost secrets to a nurturing Paro. In a weird way, just as we're punching the robot's buttons, it's punching ours: We're programmed to respond to things that respond to us. Even Aaron Edsinger, who helped build Domo, tells Turkle that he reacts to the robot's touch almost as if it were human. "There is a part of me that is trying to say, well, Domo cares," he tells her. Turkle writes:

"And this is where we are in the robotic moment. One of the world's most sophisticated robot 'users' cannot resist the idea that pressure from a robot's hand implies caring. … Again, what robots offer meets our human vulnerabilities. We can interact with robots in full knowledge of their limitations, comforted nonetheless by what must be an unrequited love."

Blending the Binaries
In her book, Turkle says that some futurists see a dynamic destiny for robots that seem to feel and care. Perhaps they'll minister to the elderly in even more fluent ways. Perhaps they'll replace nannies as they take care of our children. Perhaps they'll become our friends, or even lovers—a really scary thought, that last bit.

As our technology grows ever more efficient, Turkle worries that one day we might lose our need for each other altogether. She's concerned that human relationships, fraught with messiness and unpredictability, may become more hassle than they're worth—replaced by machines programmed to never annoy us, never hurt us, never argue with us, never betray us.

Impossible? Perhaps. But it's no longer unthinkable. Some of Turkle's subjects already seem to confess more to their chosen robots than they do to the humans around them. And when we get to the point at which we can make a machine that will respond exactly as we'd like—just the right amount of compassionate inflection, paired with a healing touch—I can see how we might prefer that over the friend who occasionally tells us to "get off your duff and quit whining." Couple that with a cultural drift toward thinking of ourselves as some kind of sentient, biological robot, not so different than our silicon brethren …

Again, it seems preposterous. But not unimaginable. Because as our tech gadgets become more like us, it's almost impossible not to think of ourselves as being more like them. Their consciousness is elevated. Ours is minimized.

Think about some of the words I've used to describe us in this column. I've said we're wired in such-and-such a way, programmed to respond like so. I've talked about how robots can push our buttons. Our computers now go to sleep and catch viruses. We reboot and power up. We compare our brains to computers as often as we compare our computers to brains.

Now add spiritual concepts to the mix: Christians know that we are all formed (molded, built, wired, programmed) by a Creator (the Master Sculptor, Builder, Engineer, Programmer). We know we're products of a Divine Mind. For centuries, some Christians have told us that the gulf between us and God is like the separation between ants and us. It doesn't seem much of a leap to take out the word ant and insert Furby.

But while there are undeniably machine-like aspects to our bodies and computer-like semblances to our brains, we risk losing sight of a very simple truth by following this path too far: We are more than the nuts and bolts of our biology and chemistry, more than the sum of our moving parts. We are more than made … we are born, born with a divine spark that cannot be duplicated or manufactured. We are alive—alive through God's grace and by way of His love.

We may create machines that seem to care. But we do care … because He cares. We are products of a sacred alchemy we can never understand and perhaps should not dare to try.

My Furby is dead now. And, of course, it always was. It was always a zombie, mimicking a life that was wholly outside its plastic grasp. It feels the same inside that dark box down in the dirt as it did when my wife was playing with it: nothing.

So it had better not talk again. Or I'm going to have to rewrite this article.