Artificial emotions, real problems?

Toys: A researcher studies the benefit or harm in the ties children and others form with devices programmed to simulate personalities.

October 01, 2001|By Martha Woodall | Martha Woodall,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Does your child truly love her Furby? Should she?

For 20 years, Sherry Turkle, a professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been studying how people interact with technology.

Now she is examining how children and others are being affected by digital pets, by toys such as Furby that learn to communicate, and by robotic dolls and electronic animals that have been programmed to trigger human emotions.

"This is a new direction for the old field of artificial intelligence," Turkle said. "It is now not just trying to make machines with certain kinds of intelligence, but to make machines that, even if they don't have a lot of smarts ... make us feel something. I call these things `relational artifacts.' "

Turkle, who directs MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self, became especially intrigued by children's bonds with inanimate objects after Tamagotchi and Furby toys began arriving in stores a few years ago.

Tamagotchi, an electronic image living on a pocket-size screen, makes sounds demanding to be fed and nurtured, or else it will "die." Furby, a furry, pint-size mechanical creature, learns language and responds to and asks for a child's touch.

A clinical psychologist who has studied children and technology for years, Turkle said that before the arrival of this category of techno-toys, children used to say that some toys and software seemed to be alive, because they had been programmed to be intelligent.

"It is one thing for a child to say that `a computer program is sort of alive because it beats me at chess,'" she said. "It is a different thing to say, `Furby is sort of alive because it loves me and wants me to hug it.' That is a move from cognition to emotion. The connections we form with inanimate things now have a connection with our emotional psychology."

The shift could be confusing for young children, Turkle said, and she has concerns about those who spend a lot of time with such toys. She said children should play with different kinds of toys to stimulate their imaginations and creativity.

For the last year, she has studied children between the ages of 5 and 12, observing how they interact with some of the most advanced robots in the artificial-intelligence lab at MIT.

"The other thing that pushes a child's [emotional] buttons is when the object makes a kind of eye contact with you and gestures to you," Turkle said. "As animals, we are programmed to think that the object that can do that has a personality. ... When one of these robots makes eye contact, you are sort of toast. You feel there is someone at home there."

The array of electronic and robotic pets and dolls that have been programmed to develop and respond based on the way they are treated will only increase, Turkle said - and their use might not be limited to children. Turkle wonders whether nursing homes might begin using robotic pets to provide simulated companionship for residents when bringing in real pets would be too costly or impractical.

Turkle said her new book - as yet untitled - would focus on relational artifacts. Her 1995 work, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, examined the way people use on-screen aliases to create new identities and express facets of their personalities that they keep under wraps during everyday life. She is also the author of The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, published in 1981.

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