YOU'RE NEVER ALONE WITH A FLUFFY MICRO (column) - computerised pets

Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 01/83 item 01 - scanned

Did you ever read Neil Frude's article, 'Animistics', in the July 1980 Personal Computer World? I found the article quite fascinating and every few months I find myself thinking about Neil's ideas on where certain companies in this industry may find their future profits. Oddly enough, my own recent articles on obsessive programmers and robots brought Neil's theme back into focus. Broadly speaking, he feels that we are on the verge of developing a new range of computer systems which could be described as electronic companions or, to quote from his article, 'plastic pals'. The link with robots is perhaps obvious, the link with mental health is that lonely people are most subject to depression, mental breakdown, suicide and alcoholism. The solution lies in the combination of existing technologies and skills.

Just think for a moment about emotions you've felt when sitting at a computer. No doubt you've felt bored waiting for something to happen or, more likely, hostile because the darned thing's gone wrong. Every word processor user must have experienced that awful moment when two or three hours of creative writing has been lost. Programmers have certainly suffered at the hands of their computers throughout computing history. Playing computer games obviously arouses a great deal of excitement. All these emotions are aroused without too much effort on the part of the programmer or system designer. People often regard computers as individuals I know one company that fondly refers to its machine as Einstein. Many of us have a tendency to bestow this inanimate object, the computer, with human characteristics.

We do this to pets, too. Many people will chat to cats, tortoises and dogs and derive a great deal of comfort and pleasure from the animal's company. Lonely people m particular, can form a very special relationship with an animal which acts as a substitute for human company. This is despite the fact that such an animal has a very limited behavioural repertoire.

Have you ever noticed the effect on a naive user of a program which asks for a person's name then goes on to address them personally. Such a program can be written in about ten seconds and requires very little thought. Imagine what would happen if we put a lot of thought into the human aspects of programs. With the skills of a programmer coupled to those of a psychologist or a playwright we could produce some pretty devastating interactions between the user and the machine. We could almost certainly deliberately arouse feelings of affection and pleasure once the user forgets that she's talking to a machine. Since there's probably an initial barrier when talking to cats, tortoises, or babies even, then this 'machine barrier' may be easier to overcome than we might think.

So, maybe the 'micro companion' is a possibility. In his original article, Neil described such a device thus: microcircuits, warm and fur-covered contentedly purring away in every old lady's lap, looking up once in a while, speaking words of reassurance and of its love and need for her, and reminding her to take her tablets at the right time. . . It does make a certain bizarre sense, doesn't it'? A cartoonist can evoke responses with a few simple lines. Doll makers use similar techniques to make their bits of plastic more appealing. In a similar way we could couple speech synthesis technology to the clever use of words to bring about similar reactions to the computer. If we encased the machine in a suitable pleasantly textured 'body' we would increase the appeal still further. Add a bit of warmth and a pleasant tone of voice and we could be well on the way to the 'plastic pal' mentioned earlier, all with technology that exists today.

In the mid-60's, Joseph Weizenbaum, to his eternal regret, programmed a computer to caricature a Rogerian psychoanalyst. He called his program ELIZA and it must be one of the best known computer programs in the world. It's the one that holds conversations like this:

ELIZA: Why have you come to see me?

PATIENT: I'm feeling a little low. that's all.

ELIZA: That's very interesting. Why are you feeling low?

PATIENT: I don't really know. Maybe it's the children.

And so it goes on. ELIZA simply picks up key words and invites expansion based on those words. If ELIZA gets stuck it simply says "go on" until the 'patient' drops another meaningful word into the conversation. Weizenbaum's work was declared by him to relate to the study of natural language interaction between humans and machines. Sadly, some people took the program seriously as a psychoanalyst and begged for time with it to get themselves sorted out. I mention ELIZA simply to reinforce the idea that it is possible to program a computer in such a way that the user can become lost in meaningful 'conversation' with it. To put it another way, a computer can certainly be programmed to demonstrate higher interactive skills than, say, a cat or a tortoise.

The 'plastic pal' will have a human or animal shape. It may even be a replica of someone or something, according to the user's needs. It would be pleasant to touch, having a soft warm skin or fur covering. Anything which could remind the user that it is a machine would be disguised. There would certainly be no flashing lights, metal parts or VDU screen. Computer controlled production could make the speech and facial features unique to each machine. Similarly, imperfections such as coughs, giggles and stutters could be added to make the machines more 'human'. It's a macabre thought, but it would be possible to continue life with a replica of a decreased spouse, or a favourite film star even. For the moment locomotion poses a bit of a problem but it's probably only a matter of time before someone cracks that particular problem.

Once home with the 'plastic pal' it will be switched on and, from that moment it will start to memorise information about its owner's likes and dislikes. Anything, in fact, which will enable the 'relationship' to be a smooth one and to enable the 'pal' to initiate activities as well as responding to the user's own ideas. In this way it can become an entertainer, a comforter, a memory jogger, a calculator, a teacher, a guard dog, a game player, a menu planner in fact, an ideal companion banishing loneliness, preventing boredom and giving care and nurturance to those who need it most. Repugnant? An insult to human beings'? Maybe, but there's no escaping the fact that many people are so desperately lonely that, in the absence of a human companion, this may be just what the doctor ordered.

Reference: Personal Computer World, July 1980: Animistics by Neil Frude, lecturer in Clinical Psychology at University College, Cardiff.