Quote in Newsweek article on owners’ emotional attachment to Sony’s robot dog the Aibo

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Late on a Friday night I was contacted by a journalist from Newsweek in the States asking me to comment on a recent story regarding Sony’s decision to cease support for it’s robot dog, Aibo, short for “Artificially Intelligent Robot” and the distress this was causing some owners.

I was asked the following questions,

“Why are people growing so attached to a robot? Is this weird? And as Artificial Intelligence becomes more common in our everyday lives, can we expect to form more attachments like these, or do you think we will learn to detach from things that are not actually living?”

Here’s what I said in response,

It’s not at all unusual for people to develop strong emotional attachments to non-living objects or machines. Research suggests this can happen in order to satisfy a need in us e.g. the need to care for something to improve our own sense of well-being or by way of a child substitute. Desmond Morris, zoologist, ethologist and human sociobiology writes extensively on this very subject (e.g. in ‘The Naked Ape’, 1967).

Whilst forming strong attachments to inanimate objects might at first seem ‘weird’ when you look more closely you see that it is in fact very common. For example there are many instances in which we do precisely that e.g. naming a car, or a child forming a strong attachment to a doll. Studies have also shown that some soldiers anthropomorphize robots working in the field, assigning them human or animal-like attributes, including gender, and relating to the machines as people (see the work of Julie Carpenter from the University of Washington). Increasingly we also express feelings of loss and distress when our mobile phones are misplaced or stolen. In this way I believe we are all becoming very attached to technologies which play a significant (connective) role in our lives.

Such examples show that developing a strong bond with something non-living is not strange or unusual but rather something quite normal and natural for us as humans. In fact, you could argue that we are predisposed to doing it, it’s a built in biological urge we have. Furthermore, when a machine or object also exhibits features which resemble something living, both physically (e.g. facial features) or behaviourally (movement, capacity for learning, sounds etc.) we are likely to form an even stronger bond (see ‘The Role of Emotion in Believable Agents’. Bates, J. 1994).
Fundamentally we are social beings and need to feel connected to other ‘beings’. We relate to certain machines as though they are living because of this need.

To answer the second part of the question we should first define the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’. Essentially Artificial Intelligence refers to machine or software learning systems and so in this sense we are increasingly surrounded by AI now. For example Google’s search and behavioural targeting algorithms are all based on software learning systems, modern cars now have in built AI as do washing machines, banking processes and military aircraft. However, I suspect that when you ask whether we will form more emotional attachments to machines you are referring to machines which physically resemble ‘living’ or conscious beings (e.g. Aibo). If so, then I suspect the more a machine looks and behaves like something living the more likely we are to form a bond or empathise with it. Furthermore, if or as more people in society end up living alone for whatever reason, I believe that the capacity to become attached to something non-living will increase. Because we are social and need to be connected, when we lack human interaction we may substitute that through interactions with non-human beings e.g. a pet (see Morris, The Naked Ape, 1967). Moving forward we may increasingly substitute that interaction with something non-living like a robot or robot dog.

Perhaps, if we are ever in a position to be almost wholly surrounded by learning machines which resemble living beings we may become desensitised but I don’t see that happening for a very long time yet. And there will be other factors which will determine how we relate to these kinds of machines for example, the Uncanny Valley Syndrome in which an artificial being looks human but in slightly the wrong way such that it actually elicits feelings of fear and revulsion (see Masahiro Mori, 1970).

Lastly, it’s also worth referencing David Levy who authored a book called ‘Love and Sex with Robots’ in which he explores the reasons we fall in love, why we form emotional attachments to animals and virtual pets, and why these same attachments could extend to love for robots.

This is a vast topic and as such difficult to summarise succinctly but it’s one I’d happily discuss for hours. I love it! 🙂

Read the full Newsweek article “Japan’s Robot Dogs Get Funerals as Sony Looks Away” here.

Photo credit: Sony Aibo 2015

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On 19th March 2015
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