‘She was loved, and she loved back’

On: September 14, 2011
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About Roos van Tongerloo
I am Roos, I like robots, loads of shiny gadgets I cannot afford, philosophy, my own cats, the smell of an old book and words. I hate numbers; namely math, statistics, databases and phone numbers. Actually all kinds of numbers. And, although in real life I might seem like a pretty decent person, please do not try to phone me; I get nervous on the phone and will most definitely make an ass out of myself.

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I will never forget the look in Ladan’s eyes as she grabbed my Tamagotchi, without asking, and brutally pressed all the buttons at the same time. ‘Well, I really don’t get this stupid thing. It’s just stupid.’, she said, leaving my Tamagotchi to die a sudden death and my heart shattered to pieces.

Since Ladan was considered ‘one of the cool kids’, and I was already aware of the importance of reputation, I decided to save my tears for my mom, who was there to pick me up a few hours later. As I sat in the backseat of the car, crying hysterically, mom tried to calm me down in the worst way possible; ‘Honey, it’s just a game! It is not really hurt, or dead, or gone. You can just press the reset button and start over!’

Little did she know.

I actually loved the tamagotchi. As much as I would probably have loved a rabbit, a dog or any other ‘real’ pet. Luckily, there are academics who second my opinion and make me realise I am not that weird as my mom, and other wise grown up individuals, made me think I was. As Sherry Turkle states in her book ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other’;

We are psychologically programmed not only to nurture what we love, but to love what we nurture. (Turkle, 2011)

So, because I was given the responsibility to take care of the tamagotchi and aware of the fact that it was totally dependent, I automatically developed a sense of love and an unbreakable bound between us. More importantly, she states, a Tamagotchi is different from other technological devices simply because it is always on. By turning it off you’ll ‘kill’ it. Mechanical objects usually can be turned off and on again depending on whether they’re needed or not. Other than people or animals. So:

Children understand that bodies need to be always on, that they become “off” when people or animals die. So, the inability to turn off a tamagotchi becomes evidence of its life. (Turkle, 2011)

Also, our ability to project specific needs and emotions to the non living can lift interactivity to a whole other level; like the way a child can tell her parents how much the dog would like to go to Disneyland or a depressed old lady tells her dog in a high pitched voice ‘You are sad too, aren’t you Lassie?’. This way a mechanical device seems to develop empathic qualities, which make its ‘aliveness’ even more realistic. This effect is similar to the ELIZA-effect, which Turkle describes in her book; even though we are fully aware of the fact that indeed we are talking to a mechanical device, we still act like it isn’t. (You can try the original 1970’s ELIZA project here.)

I find it remarkable how these days, these childlike conceptions of ‘life’ are being adapted by the ‘grown up’ society, leading to advanced technological developments that may solve present social problems. Especially, in my opinion, one of the most sad, but fascinating modern day problems; that of loneliness. Even though artificial intelligence cannot hold up its side of a wide ranging conversation, or take notice of our emotions by the expression on our face, it does supply tools which can help fill the basic human need for companionship.

Our new objects don’t so much ‘fool us’ into thinking they are communicating with us; roboticists have learned those few triggers that help us fool ourselves. We don’t need much. (Turkle, 2011)

One of the most striking examples is Paro, the little robot seal. Paro is a so called ‘therapeutic robot’. It looks and feels like a baby seal, weights just as much as a human baby and is wonderfully able to come across as truly ‘alive’. When someone calls its name, it’ll make eye contact, it responds to human voice and it can tell whether it is stroked gently or meanly hit. Also it has a small vocabulary to communicate with its master. Mostly Japanese, but its working on its English as well. Its charger is shaped like a pacifier, to keep the ‘baby’ assumption alive.

In Japan, Paro offers companionship to those elderly people who don’t have any friends or family left. Loneliness can be a terrible disease, leaving people waiting for death to come and free them. But with Paro there seems to be at least someone, or something, who (or that) makes lonely people feel like the are connected. Making their presence appear to be valued. The assumption to love and to be loved, or appreciated for that matter, appears to be in the eye of the beholder. Even though in the back of our minds, we know the connection is somewhat artificial. As Mrs. Shimura, proud owner of a Paro robot, says:

Paro is family, rather than a robot. But if we think of Paro as a robot, we would not take care of it. And we would think it is just a robot. Even if we cuddle it.

What I would like to make clear is that although we often speak of it as taboo, or science fiction, our attitude towards technology and mechanical devices is changing rapidly. Where 15 years ago my mom told me to stop crying over a Tamagotchi, Japanese people now defeat their loneliness by adopting a robot seal. Our assumption of ‘life’ hasn’t changed, but we have accepted the fact that mechanical devices can function as a substitute for a living creature. Even though we know that it doesn’t match our definition of ‘alive’, we are able to treat it as if it does. Artificial love is worth just as much as any other kind of love. As a little girl says about her deceased Tamagotchi:

She was loved, and she loved back.

It seems like our ability to love something other than human or animal brings devices alive. As Sherry Turkle wonders:

If a robot makes you love it, is it alive? (Turkle, 2011)

If think, in some cases, it certainly is.

Post inspired by Sherry Turkle’s book: ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other’. Basic Books, 2011.

2 Responses to “‘She was loved, and she loved back’”
  • September 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    A very interesting related topic regarding human-machine relationships/interactions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

  • September 30, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Hey Roos, nice post. There’s also another (much more cynical) take on virtual parenting and companionship, where these technologies do not so much reflect how we’re psychologically programmed, but rather how social life and domesticity have become more disconnected, automated and superficial. I guess this would be a Baudrillard-like criticism, but I’m thinking especially of an old, funny short story I recently came across by Rob Malda, the founder of Slashdot: http://cmdrtaco.net/2011/09/nerds-unix-and-virtual-parenting/ – note the punchline at the end.

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