ASH Honors Blog: From People to Machines

From People to Machines

Over the years kids have gone from playing with people to playing with machines. For my Honors research project this year, I’m reading the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle. This book discusses the research and experiments the author conducted to learn the effects of technology on people, including children, adults, and elderly people. Among the technologies examined in the book are implanted computer chips in people who have Parkinson’s disease, robotic pet seals and babies to provide companionship for elderly people, and, most disturbingly, even robots as romantic partners.

However, the main focus of the author, a mother herself, is on the effects that technology has on children. Turkle used herself and her seven year old daughter in one of her experiments. They bought Tamagotchis, small toy eggs with little creatures “living” inside them. She compared her daughter’s and her own new toys. Turkle’s Tamagotchi liked to eat at specific times and didn’t require as much entertainment as her daughter’s. She worked hard to keep it “happy”, and she wrote that she was not expecting to feel as bad as she did when it died. When she reset it, she wasn’t as interested in caring for the new creature that replaced her old one.

That same sentiment was felt by many of the children Turkle interviewed. The children all referred to the Tamagotchis as if they were alive or “alive enough,” and they said that the Tamagotchis must be taken care of or they will “get sick and die.” This is obviously not literal as it is only a little animation on an egg-shaped screen. However, the animation can die and get sick, and a new one can take its place. Strangely, though, children don’t love new Tamagotchis as much as the original ones, so they ask their parents for new eggs, giving them a new animal rather than an imposter.
This strong attachment to a robotic creature could be caused by the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system controls, “the behavioral or emotional responses,” of a human being. Introducing children to toys like Tamagotchis, Furbies, or Baby Alives at a young age could affect how they see things when they are older.

One of the girls whom Turkle interviews becomes confused about biology. Jessica, age eight, worries about her Furby, a robotic creature resembling an owl, getting hurt and thinks it has feelings. When someone pulls her hair it hurts, so Jessica thinks it’s the same for her Furby. She noticed the screw in her Furby’s stomach and said, “There’s a screw in my belly button…the screw comes out, then blood comes out.” Jessica also thinks that humans have batteries, and she says that our batteries, “work forever like the sun.” Jessica hasn’t learned about biology yet or about how the sun won’t last forever, and neither will we. Thus, it may be hard for her to comprehend, and introducing such complex ideas to children are confusing. Other children also compared parts of the Furby to themselves, which caused confusion when they learned that a person can’t, for example, “unscrew an ankle.”
In addition to the confusion about human biology, children exposed to artificial intelligence, robots, or other forms of simulated life may struggle to understand real-world social interactions. Older generations like our grandparents and great grandparents are better at communicating with other people. This could be due to the fact that they grew up playing with other people, not robots or simulated life forms. Children today are growing up with Alexas, and studies show that children can’t differentiate between the real world adults in their lives and the simulated Alexa adult with whom they interact.
While technological advancements offer many advantages, they also present challenges, especially to the world’s youngest users. We must help children delineate between real people and real relationships and artificial intelligence and the false sense of connection it offers.