New Objects are Changing Our Minds

Winston Churchill once said, "We make our buildings and then they make us." We make our technologies, and they in turn shape us. Indeed, there is an unstated question that lies behind much of our historic preoccupation with the computer's capabilities. That question is not what computers can do or what will computers be like in the future, but instead, what will we be like? What kind of people are we becoming as we develop more and more intimate relationships with machines? The new technological genre of relational, sociable artifacts is changing the way we think. Relational artifacts are new elements in the categories people use for thinking about life, mind, consciousness, and relationship. These artifacts are well positioned to affect people's way of thinking about themselves, about identity, and about what makes people special, influencing how we understand such "human" qualities as emotion, love, and care. We will not be taking the adequate measure of these artifacts if we only consider what they do for us in an instrumental sense. We must explore what they do not just for us but to us as people, to our relationships, to the way our children develop, to the way we view our place in the world.

There has been a great deal of work on how to create relational artifacts and maximize their ability to evoke responses from people. Too little attention, however, has gone into understanding the human implications of this new computational paradigm, both in terms of how we relate to the world and in terms of how humans construct their sense of what it means to be human and alive. The language for assessing these human implications is enriched by several major traditions of thinking about the role of objects in human life.

Objects as Transitional to Relationship

Social scientists Claude Levi-Strauss (1963), Mary Douglas (1960), Donald Norman (1988), Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (1981), and Eugene Rochberg-Halton (1981) have explored how objects carry ideas, serving as enablers of new individual and cultural meanings. In the psychoanalytic tradition Winnicott (1971) has discussed how objects mediate between the child's earliest bond with the mother, who the infant experiences as inseparable from the self, and the child's growing capacity to develop relationships with other people, who will be experienced as separate beings.

In the past, the power of objects to act in this transitional role has been tied to the ways in which they enabled the child to project meanings onto them. The doll or the teddy bear presented an unchanging and passive presence. Relational artifacts take a more active stance. With them, children's expectations that their dolls want to be hugged, dressed, or lulled to sleep don't come from the child's projection of fantasy or desire onto inert playthings, but from such things as a digital doll's crying inconsolably or even saying, "Hug me!" "It's time for me to get dressed for school!" The psychology of the playroom turns from projection to social engagement, in which data from an active and unpredictable object of affection helps to shape the nature of the relationship. On the simplest level, when a robotic creature makes eye contact, follows your gaze, and gestures towards you, what you feel is the evolutionary button being pushed to respond to that creature as a sentient and even caring other.

Objects as Transitional to Theories of Life

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget addressed some of the many ways in which objects carry ideas (1960). For Piaget, interacting with objects affects how the child comes to think about space, time, the concept of number, and the concept of life. While for Winnicott and the object relations school of psychoanalysis, objects bring a world of people and relationships inside the self, for Piaget, objects enable the child to construct categories in order to make sense of the outer world. Piaget, studying children in the context of non-computational objects, found that as children matured, they homed in on a definition of life that centered around "moving of one's own accord." First, everything that moved was taken to be alive, then only those things that moved without an outside push or pull. Gradually, children refined the notion of "moving of one's own accord" to mean the "life motions" of breathing and metabolism.

In the past two decades, I have followed how computational objects change the ways children engage with classic developmental questions such as thinking about the property of "aliveness." From the first generation of children who met computers and electronic toys and games (the children of the late 1970s and early 1980s), I found a disruption in this classical story. Whether or not children thought their computers were alive, they were sure that how the toys moved was not at the heart of the matter. Children's discussions about the computer's aliveness came to center on what the children perceived as the computer's psychological rather than physical properties (Turkle 1984). Did the computer know things on its own or did it have to be programmed? Did it have intentions, consciousness, feelings? Did it cheat? Did it know it was cheating? Faced with intelligent machines, children took a new world of objects and imposed a new world order. To put it too simply, motion gave way to emotion and physics gave way to psychology as criteria for aliveness.

By the 1990s, that order had been strained to the breaking point. Children spoke about computers as just machines but then described them as sentient and intentional. They talked about biology, evolution. They said things like, "the robots are in control but not alive, would be alive if they had bodies, are alive because they have bodies, would be alive if they had feelings, are alive the way insects are alive but not the way people are alive; the simulated creatures are not alive because they are just in the computer, are alive until you turn off the computer, are not alive because nothing in the computer is real; the Sim creatures are not alive but almost-alive, they would be alive if they spoke, they would be alive if they traveled, they're not alive because they don't have bodies, they are alive because they can have babies, and would be alive if they could get out of the game and onto America Online."

There was a striking heterogeneity of theory. Children cycled through different theories to far more fluid ways of thinking about life and reality, to the point that my daughter upon seeing a jellyfish in the Mediterranean said, "Look Mommy, a jellyfish, it looks so realistic!" Likewise, visitors to Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando have complained that the biological animals that populated the theme park were not "realistic" compared to the animatronic creatures across the way at Disneyworld.

By the 1990s, children were playing with computational objects that demonstrated properties of evolution. In the presence of these objects, children's discussions of the aliveness question became more complex. Now, children talked about computers as "just machines" but described them as sentient and intentional as well. Faced with ever more sophisticated computational objects, children were in the position of theoretical tinkerers, "making do" with whatever materials were at hand, "making do" with whatever theory could be made to fit a prevailing circumstance (Turkle 1995).

Relational artifacts provide children with a new challenge for classification. As an example, consider the very simple relational artifact, the "Furby." The Furby is an owl-like interactive doll, activated by sensors and a pre-programmed computer chip, which engages and responds to their owners with sounds and movement. Children playing with Furbies are inspired to compare and contrast their understanding of how the Furby works to how they "work." In the process, the line between artifact and biology softens. Consider this response to the question, "Is the Furby alive?"

Jen (age 9): I really like to take care of it. So, I guess it is alive, but it doesn't need to really eat, so it is as alive as you can be if you don't eat. A Furby is like an owl. But it is more alive than an owl because it knows more and you can talk to it. But it needs batteries so it is not an animal. It's not like an animal kind of alive.

Jen's response, like many others provoked by playing with Furbies, suggests that today's children are learning to distinguish between an "animal kind of alive" and a "Furby kind of alive." In my conversations with a wide range of people who have interacted with relational artifacts — from five year olds to educated adults — an emergent common denominator has been the increasingly frequent use of "sort of alive" as a way of dealing with the category confusion posed by relational artifacts. It is a category shared by the robots' designers, who come to have questions about the ways in which their objects are moving toward a kind of consciousness that might grant them a new moral status.

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