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One of the things I’ve been a little bit surprised by has been just how many people have volunteered to me (or in reviews) just how much they like the ‘Experts’ in Communion of Dreams, and in particular how much of a favorite character Seth becomes to them in the course of the novel.
I don’t mean I’m surprised by how much people like the Experts, and particularly Seth. Hell, I intended the Experts to be likeable. I mean that this is something which people find remarkable enough to, well, remark on it.
That’s because humans tend to anthropomorphize just about everything. Our pets. Our cars. Our tools. Even nature. It’s one of the basic ways that we make sense of the world, as can be seen in religious and spiritual beliefs. Long before Siri there was HAL, and inasmuch as Communion of Dreams is an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey I knew that Seth would resonate as a ‘real person’.*
So this morning I was amused to hear a story on NPR about how giving computers/robots more human characteristics tends to cause humans to develop a greater sense of empathy and socialization with them. Amused, but not surprised. From the article:
Many people have studied machine-human relations, and at this point it’s clear that without realizing it, we often treat the machines around us like social beings.
* * *
What the study demonstrated was that people do in fact obey the rule of reciprocity when it comes to computers. When the first computer was helpful to people, they helped it way more on the boring task than the other computer in the room. They reciprocated.
* * *
“The relationship is profoundly social,” he says. “The human brain is built so that when given the slightest hint that something is even vaguely social, or vaguely human — in this case, it was just answering questions; it didn’t have a face on the screen, it didn’t have a voice — but given the slightest hint of humanness, people will respond with an enormous array of social responses including, in this case, reciprocating and retaliating.”
On the NPR website version of the story there’s also this delightful video showing what happens when a robot with cat/human characteristics begs a research subject to not switch it off:
Interesting. But again, unsurprising. Consider the whole sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey when HAL is shut down — a powerful and poignant part of the movie. And referenced at the end of the video above.
Lastly, I laughed out loud once the story was over on NPR, and the transitional bit of music started up. Why? Because it was an instrumental work by the artist Vangelis, composed as the Love Theme from the movie Blade Runner.
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