Sherry Turkle teaches psychology at MIT, and is one of the leading scholars in the social dimensions of digital culture. Her book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, was written in 1995 (an epoch ago in Internet years) but is still probably the most perceptive and well-written (in my opinion) treatments of the psychological dimensions of human-computer interaction. In it, Turkle quotes a statement by Emmerson that dreams and beasts are “test objects” — “two keys by which we are to find out the secrets of our nature.” Turkle adds computers as a new form of test object — she argues that in our attempts to negotiate the meaning of digital objects and spaces, we will face important decisions about who we are, individually and collectively.
As an interesting update to the “test object” notion, see this page from the University of Washington’s Value Sensitive Design Research Lab, and scroll down to the section on Human-Robotic Interaction. There is a wonderful set of papers on the way people relate to AIBOs — the electronic dogs that Sony manufactures. The AIBO is interesting because it is doubly a test object — a virtual dog. The researchers sample human interactions with the AIBO to assess how they differ from interactions with real dogs or inanimate (stuffed) dogs. For instance, do people perceive any ethical issues with regard to the treatment of a robotic dog? Most don’t, though some do. This is from a message board:
WHAT!? They Actualy THREW AWAY aibo, as in the GARBAGE?!! That is outragious! That is so sick to me! Goes right up there with Putting puppies in a bag and than burying them! OHH I feel sick…
But while (I think) most would agree it is silly to treat an AIBO even remotely like a dog, is there anything else to say about AIBO ethics? The authors state that AIBO owners seem to garner some of the psychological benefits of having a pet from a relationship with an AIBO — yet most feel entirely free to ignore it whenever is convenient or desirabe to do so. Which is interesting, considering that we’ll soon have generations of children growing up with richly interactive electronic companions as toys. What might they learn from the availability of such switch on/switch off “real” imaginary friends?
And if you want a legal-doctrinal spin on these questions, see Ian Kerr’s recent paper on e-commerce law: Bots, Babes and the Californication of Commerce: Are we tricked into buying things by electronic babes?