The Human Capacity to Love ‘Bots

Jim Louderback, on his What’s New Now podcast, recently interviewed Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, following the Future in Review conference where Angle had made a powerful presentation. iRobot is the company that produces the disk-shaped vacuuming consumer robot the Roomba and PackBot robots used by government and the military. One of the more interesting things that came from the conversation was Angle’s reference to the relationships that seem to develop between these little devices and their owners. Especially poignant was the relationships that soldiers seem to develop with the military bots.

As related by Angle to Louderback, customers who might normally not name their computers or devices seem to become emotionally attached to these devices, in part, because they sense how the devices are “trying” to be helpful and end up naming their Roombas. According to Angle there have been calls to iRobot where owners have requested having their Roomba serviced, were horrified when the technician on the phone told them to just send the device back to iRobot and that iRobot would send out a new replacement back to them. No way, Angle said, they didn’t want to replace “Rosie,” they wanted someone to come out in a red ambulance van, sirens blaring and screwdrivers to the ready to repair her. As cute as this attachment might be with the home devices, it is much more painful when it’s a fallen comrad in a war zone.

Angle told told Louderback that one PackBot deployed in Iraq had been named Scooby Doo by its crew and had successfully complete 35 missions defusing improvised explosive devices (IED in military-speak). Mission 36, however, proved to be its last. Carrying his fallen team-member back to the repair technicians the tearful soldier pleaded, “Please fix Scooby Doo because he saved my life.”

Angle commented in other interviews that “I think it’s very rational. [Scooby Doo] was someone, something, that was doing a great service for them and thus when they brought it back, it was viewed not just as a loss of a machine gun or a piece of body armor or a helmet. It was a loss of a contributing member of the team.” (reported by Lester Haines in The Register & Joel Rothstein for Reuters)

As I listened to this interview the thing that struck me was the human capacity to extend human capacities towards inanimate devices. I’ve been working with technology of various classes, from giant switching machines which filled several rooms to little hand-held devices for over 25 years and I have to say that I’ve never been one to name these things. But I can see how something that does something autonomously for me every day or week, how after some time I would anthropomorphize the devices’ behavior. I mean, my computers don’t do anything for me on their own. I type, they put the words on the screen, etc. Wow, I feel like I’m living in the past now ’cause everything I do with tech is so…. well, so manual. Anyway, I’m amazed at our capacity to generate feelings for our creations and whether they can return the connection, we attribute any response with our emotions. In sci-fi-speak, we seem to naturally extend our emotional force-field around those things near us with whom we develop relationships. Hmmm, all this talk about ‘bots, emotions and extending shields, makes me want to drop in an old StarTrek:TNG DVD. Live long and prosper. JBB