UnderCover: RoboFox—Furby Meets Ecology

Sunday, October 9, 2011

RoboFox—Furby Meets Ecology

Blade Runner, 1982

Blade Runner is my favorite film. The urban decay, the glamor, the gorgeous replicants than are indistinguishable from humans—and possibly 'better' than us. So I guess it shouldn't have surprised me much when I appropriated some of the more seductive elements from the film for my speculative eco-robot concept.

My idea was also influenced by the writing of Sherry Turkle's latest book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. In her book, Turkle asserts that electronic pets such as Tamagotchsi and Zhu Zhu pet hamsters have primed us to accept the idea of robot companions. Because intimacy is risky, she argues, we are drawn to the promise of friendship without the possibility of betrayal, affection without the possibility of rejection, and love without the possibility of loss—a bargain that robots may be capable of making with us in the near future.

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA scienceNOW.

While  Turkle's book is fascinating—despite my love of sci-fi I've never really given real robots much thought before—I also feel that her anxiety is a little misplaced. Every new technology is (often unintentionally) disruptive—storytelling was displaced by books which were displaced by radio which was replaced by broadcast TV and so on. And each generation is inevitably overwrought about the new trajectory society might take in response to the new tech. My mother worried about the possibly satanic influence of Dungeons & Dragons (anyone remember Tom Hanks in Mazes and Monsters?!) and the evils of Mtv—not exactly technologies, but you know what I mean—while today's parents worry about Facebook, excessive texting, and god knows what else.

While I may be critical Turkle's premise, I am not dismissive. She has done insightful research on how electronic pets manipulate our emotions and blur the cognitive line between animal and machine, alive and not alive. "Technology is seductive when it meets our human vulnerabilities," she writes, "and as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed." To see this vulnerability on display, take a look at videos done of elderly people interacting with the Paro caretaking robot seal.

Initially saddened and repulsed by this clunky and hollow substitute for genuine connection, I began asking myself this: When (not if) robotic animal replicants are reality, how could they be used for good? When robots become as beautiful as nature itself, how could we leverage this faux animal beauty to help living creatures? What if Blade Runner's owl was not a heartbreaking eulogy to nature (as in the film) but an bewitching advocate instead?

And that became my concept—a robotic fox that uses its beauty and subtle psychological manipulations to motivate citizen scientists to work toward ecological conservation. I imagine that each replicant animal's physiology connects it to a specific ecosystem (and thus helps other not-so-cute but vital species). For my proposal, I chose the Gray Fox which an animal that used to inhabit San Franciso's Presido. The species is not extinct, but the Gray Fox still symbolizes a loss for the Presidio's ecosystem. In this scenario, the robot would be donated to a university nearby where it would "adopted" by a group of students who would care for it like a Furby. The robo-fox would require a certain amount of "nourishment" in the form of ecological data that the students would need to crunch on a daily or weekly basis. If not "fed" regularly, the fox would alter its behavior to motivate the students. The fox would also act as a data transfer hub by uploading and downloading via proximity computing.

One of the most compelling parts of Turkle's book is her examination of Furby "death." When the toy was released no one considered how emotionally complex a child's attachment to a Furby could be—until one died. Children comprehend that a Furby is not an animal, but because it reacts and changes to suit its owner, it is "alive enough" to them to mourn. In the Nova video, Turkle describes us humans are "cheap dates," meaning that we can be easily tricked by social cues and Darwinian buttons into believing that a machine has consciousness. To capitalize on this powerful emotional trickery, I decided to make the eco-bots mortal. If they are neglected or if their ecosystem dies, they die. Simple. Painful.


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