Is It Live Or . . .

So it's goodbye and goodnight to Aibo and hello and good morning to Pleo. And to a more responsive Barbie; and to Butterscotch, a robotic pony; and yet more sensor-heavy new toys. These marvels were introduced at this year's DEMO event and frankly, I doubt most of them will have "legs" in this country. Or the rest of the western world. According to DEMO executive producer Chris Shapley, "By using breakthrough materials, an array of sensors and programmed intelligence, [Pleo maker] Ugobe has created a unique animated form that challenges the relationship between human beings and nonliving creatures." And that's where the trouble begins.

I saw Aibo at a Sensors Expo & Conference a couple of years ago and was melted by its charm. Mostly I was wowed by the engineering, both soft and hard, that went into giving it such a wide repertoire of actions. At another event, I was handed a doll that eerily resembled in all respects a baby maybe three weeks old. I could not hand it back quickly enough. The difference between Aibo and this strange doll was this: the baby was realistic in its appearance and feel; the Aibo puppy was not.

Two Cultures
I am very much a product of western civilization (meaning Europe and the industrialized New World). I will not argue the merits of one world view over another, but I will state with certainty that those in the cultures constituting the western world insist on a clear and unambiguous distinction between what is alive and what is not.

Other civilizations, including the Japanese, the source of that multiply-sensored doll (and especially enjoyed by grannies there), are less obsessed with that demarcation. Before Japan embraced Buddhism, its pervasive religion was animism, a religion shared by a great many of other cultures around the world. Put very briefly, animism posits that there is or could be a living spirit in anything. And when a person dies, his or her spirit continues on and can be, if it so chooses, in direct contact with the living. We in the western world, on the other hand, think of those who have been called home as alive—but as memories and in the stories that we tell about them to others.

Where's the Boundary?
Sensor engineering has greatly advanced medical science. A very few generations ago death was determined by a mirror that, held to the mouth of a failing patient, either fogged or did not. Or a feather that moved or did not. The great question in the present day is how to weigh brain vs. systemic failure as a determiner of death. The reason this work will continue is that we have to know the boundary. Animate vs. inanimate is even built into our grammar: "he" and "she" for the living or once-living and "it" for everything else. Sure, we call a ship "she" and speak of our "Mother Country," but those are metaphorical extensions of our notions of maternal care that keeps us safe and snug.

The difference between what lives and what does not is so ingrained that I foresee at least a couple of problems with these astounding new life-like toys. A pony that quivers with pleasure when curry-combed might be an initial delight for some well-to-do child. But its very realism will or should give pause to its owner and its owner's parents. As the robo pony is forgotten in the corner at bedtime, will the same happen to a living dog? And if a robotic device could be built that closely resembles Jeeves, the perfect manservant, how would we treat it? Would we feel obliged to apologize for bad-tempered outbursts? The crew of the Enterprise, never quite got it figured out with Data and neither can I. But I can say right now that the less a robot resembles me, or anyone else, however helpful around the house, the happier I'll be.

Here's a final note worth sharing, even though I can't find the reference. Some while back I read in a reputable journal an article in which an elder of an a Native American tribe was interviewed. This conversation took place in a field full of stones. The interviewer asked, "Are these stones alive?" The respondent, after a moment's thought, said, "Some are."

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