03 January 2006
For what the turtles do, you don't need live ones
From Sherry Turkle's 'dangerous idea' for Edge's question centre 2006:
At the entrance to the exhibit is a turtle from the Galapagos Islands, a seminal object in the development of evolutionary theory. The turtle rests in its cage, utterly still. "They could have used a robot," comments my daughter. It was a shame to bring the turtle all this way and put it in a cage for a performance that draws so little on the turtle's "aliveness." I am startled by her comments, both solicitous of the imprisoned turtle because it is alive and unconcerned by its authenticity. The museum has been advertising these turtles as wonders, curiosities, marvels — among the plastic models of life at the museum, here is the life that Darwin saw. I begin to talk with others at the exhibit, parents and children. It is Thanksgiving weekend. The line is long, the crowd frozen in place. My question, "Do you care that the turtle is alive?" is welcome diversion. A ten year old girl would prefer a robot turtle because aliveness comes with aesthetic inconvenience: "Its water looks dirty. Gross." More usually, the votes for the robots echo my daughter's sentiment that in this setting, aliveness doesn't seem worth the trouble. A twelve-year-old girl opines: "For what the turtles do, you didn't have to have the live ones." Her father looks at her, uncomprehending: "But the point is that they are real, that's the whole point."
Turkle goes on to surmise that the value of the original/authentic/alive thing is in decline.
Her subsequent thoughts about virtual creatures and robots are particularly interesting for owners of Nintendogs.
I call these creatures... "relational artifacts." Their ability to inspire relationship is not based on their intelligence or consciousness, but on their ability to push certain "Darwinian" buttons in people (making eye contact, for example) that make people respond as though they were in relationship. For me, relational artifacts are the new uncanny in our computer culture — as Freud once put it, the long familiar taking a form that is strangely unfamiliar. As such, they confront us with new questions.
(See also a mostly unrelated essay by Christoper Allen about our 'junk relationships' with TV characters, Belongingness and Para-Social Relationships.)
20 February 2005
When I first came to understand RFID, at the Digital ID World conference in 2003, I became excited about how it could be used to create things that tell you stories. I was mostly thinking about books and other items that people collect, and some way of communicating the lifecycle, or social life, of those collectables. What I didn't think about at all, and certainly wouldn't have expected to see so soon, was RFID's use in mass-market toys. WorldChanging reports on two new toys that bring the uncanny world of animate toys closer:
Naoru-kun, a new doll by Bandai... speaks 150 phrases and responds when it's shaken hands, hugged, petted, etc. But when Naoru-kun gets sick, kids have to use one of the items including "syringe," "candy" and "medicine." The doll reads RFID tags embedded in these items and responds accordingly.
Little Tikes has a series of toy kitchens full of interactive technology. The MagiCook Kitchen, for example, comes with pretend food embedded with electronic tags that can be read by sensors on the stovetop which then respond with the appropriate comment.
Freud taught us that "children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects" and that "children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it", so seemingly animate toys make a lot of sense. Do you think they're more likely to be broken by children following that "first metaphysical stirring" described by Charles Baudelaire in The Philosophy of Toys:
The child twists and turns his toy, he scratches it, shakes it, bangs it against the wall, throws it on the ground. From time to time, he forces it to resume its mechanical motions, sometimes backwards. Its marvellous life comes to a stop. The child... finally prises it open... But where is its soul?
20 October 2003
With torsos of benzene rings, heads made from alcohols and eyes of oxygen atoms, each NanoKid stands just 2 nanometres tall. And there are whole communities of them living in glass jars.
'The viewer sees the world through the eyes of a NanoKid as he or she pulls atoms from the periodic table and combines them. It should help children understand atoms and chemical bonds.'
See also: NanoKids
23 August 2003
The octopus, 'too recent a discovery to have a scientific name' (obfuscation takes time...), goes one step beyond the standard octopus talent for colour-changing to rapid shape-shifting to impersonate other sea creatures (including lionfish, sea snakes and the previously-mentioned dreadful flatfish). And apparently it's this range of mimicry that makes it harder for predators to realise the octopuses are imposters.
I want the mimic octopus added to the Robot Zoo (please).
04 August 2003
I catch the yawns. I am obviously therefore - according to Nature - a very self-aware and empathetic person:
Identifying with another's state of mind while they yawn may trigger an unconscious impersonation...
Those impervious to the infection... struggle to put themselves in other people's shoes, psychological tests showed. For example, they might be less likely to recognise that a social faux pas or insult could cause someone else offence.
Hmmm but further reading of Nature reveals that I might just be a big fake:
Stretching the mouth into a fake yawn tends to mimic the body's response to a real one, such as an increase in heart rate.
If you do a fake yawn, they likely or not turn into a real one.