Sociable Technologies Enhancing Human Performance When the Computer is not a Tool but a Companion

Sherry Turkle, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"Replacing human contact [with a machine] is an awful idea. But some people have no contact [with caregivers] at all. If the choice is going to a nursing home or staying at home with a robot, we think people will choose the robot. " Sebastian Thrun, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University

"AIBO [Sony's household entertainment robot] is better than a real dog. It won't do dangerous things, and it won't betray you. ...Also, it won't die suddenly and make you feel very sad.'" A thirty-two year woman on the experience of playing with AIBO

" Well, the Furby is alive for a Furby. And you know, something this smart should have arms. It might want to pick up something or to hug me. " Ron, age 6, answering the question, "Is the Furby alive?"

Artificial intelligence has historically aimed at creating objects that might improve human performance by offering people intellectual complements. In a first stage, these objects took the form of tools, instruments to enhance human reasoning, such as programs used for medical diagnosis. In a second stage, the boundary between the machine and the person became less marked. Artificial intelligence technology functioned more as a prosthetic, an extension of human mind. In recent years, even the image of a program as prosthetic does not capture the intimacy people have with computational technology. With "wearable" computing, the machine comes closer to the body, ultimately continuous with the body, and the human person is redefined as cyborg. In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on a fourth model of enhancing human performance through the use of computation: technologies that would improve people by offering new forms of social relationships. The emphasis in this line of research is less on how to make machines "really" intelligent (Turkle 1984, 1995) than on how to design artifacts that would cause people to experience them as having subjectivities that are worth engaging with.

The new kind of object can be thought of as a relational artifact or as a sociable technology. It presents itself as having affective states that are influenced by the object's interactions with human beings. Today's relational artifacts include children's playthings (such as Furbies, Tamagotchis, and My Real Baby dolls); digital dolls and robots that double as health monitoring systems for the elderly (Matsushita's forthcoming Tama, Carnegie Mellon University's Flo and Pearl); and pet robots aimed at the adult (Sony's AIBO, MIT's Cog and Kismet). These objects are harbingers of a new paradigm for computer-human interaction.

In the past, I have often described the computer as a Rorschach. When I used this metaphor I was trying to present the computer as a relatively neutral screen onto which people were able to project their thoughts and feelings, a mirror of mind and self. But today's relational artifacts make the Rorschach metaphor far less useful. The computational object is no longer affectively "neutral." Relational artifacts do not so much invite projection as demand engagement. People are learning to interact with computers through conversation and gesture. People are learning that to relate successfully to a computer you do not have to know how it works but can take it "at interface value," that is, assess its emotional "state," much as you would if you were relating to another person. Through their experiences with virtual pets and digital dolls, which present themselves as loving and responsive to care, a generation of children is learning that some objects require emotional nurturing and some even promise it in return. Adults, too, are encountering technology that attempts to offer advice, care, and companionship in the guise of help-software-embedded wizards, intelligent agents, and household entertainment robots such as the AIBO "dog."

0 0

Post a comment