I take my 14-year-old daughter to the Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibition documents Darwin’s life and thought, and somewhat defensively presents the theory of evolution as the central truth that underpins contemporary biology. The exhibition wants to convince and it wants to please. At the entrance there are two turtles from the Galapagos Islands. One is hidden from view; the other rests in its cage, utterly still. ‘They could have used a robot,’ my daughter remarks, thinking it a shame to bring the turtle all this way when it’s just going to sit there. She is both concerned for the imprisoned turtle and unmoved by its authenticity. The museum has been advertising these turtles as wonders, curiosities, marvels – among the plastic models, here is the life that Darwin saw. It is Thanksgiving weekend. The queue is long, the crowd frozen in place. I begin to talk with some of the other parents and children. My question, ‘Do you care that the turtle is alive?’ is a welcome diversion. A ten-year-old girl says she would prefer a nice clean robot: ‘Its water looks dirty. Gross.’ More usually, votes for the robots echo my daughter’s sentiment that in this setting, aliveness doesn’t seem worth the trouble. A 12-year-old girl is adamant: ‘For what the turtles do, you didn’t have to have the live ones.’ Her father looks at her, uncomprehending: ‘But the point is that they are real, that’s the whole point.’
The Darwin exhibition gives authenticity major play: on display are the actual magnifying glass that Darwin used, the actual notebooks in which he recorded his observations, the very notebook in which he wrote the famous sentences that first described his theory of evolution. But in the children’s reactions to the inert but alive Galapagos turtle, the idea of the original has no place. I recall my daughter’s reaction as a small child to a boat ride in the Mediterranean. Already an expert in the world of simulated fish tanks, she saw something in the water, pointed to it excitedly and said: ‘Look, a jellyfish! It looks so realistic!’ When Animal Kingdom opened in Orlando, populated by ‘real’ – that is, biological – animals, its first visitors complained that they were not as ‘realistic’ as the animatronic creatures in other parts of Disneyworld. The robotic crocodiles slapped their tails, rolled their eyes – in sum, displayed archetypal ‘crocodile’ behaviour. The biological crocodiles, like the Galapagos turtle, pretty much kept to themselves.
I find the children’s position unsettling. ‘If you put in a robot instead of the live turtle, do you think people should be told that the turtle is not alive?’ I ask. Not really, several of the children say. Data on ‘aliveness’ can be given out on a need to know basis. But when do we need to know if something is alive?
Consider another moment: a woman in a nursing home outside Boston is sad. Her son has broken off his relationship with her. Her nursing home is taking part in a study I am conducting on robotics for the elderly. I am recording the woman’s reactions as she sits with the robot Paro, a seal-like creature advertised as the first ‘therapeutic robot’ for its ostensibly positive effects on the ill, the elderly and the emotionally troubled. Paro is able to make eye contact by sensing the direction a human voice is coming from; it is sensitive to touch, and has ‘states of mind’ that are affected by how it is treated – for example, it can sense whether it is being stroked gently or more aggressively. In this session with Paro, the woman, depressed because of her son’s abandonment, comes to believe that the robot is depressed as well. She turns to Paro, strokes him and says: ‘Yes, you’re sad, aren’t you. It’s tough out there. Yes, it’s hard.’ And then she pets the robot once again, attempting to provide it with comfort. And in so doing, she tries to comfort herself.
What are we to make of this transaction? When I talk to others about it, their first associations are usually with their pets and the comfort they provide. I don’t know whether a pet could feel or smell or intuit some understanding of what it might mean to be with an old woman whose son has chosen not to see her anymore. But I do know that Paro understood nothing. The woman’s sense of being understood was based on the ability of computational objects like Paro – ‘relational artefacts’, I call them – to convince their users that they are in a relationship by pushing certain ‘Darwinian’ buttons (making eye contact, for example) that cause people to respond as though they were in relationship. Relational artefacts are the new uncanny in our computer culture – as Freud put it, ‘the long-familiar taking a form that is strangely unfamiliar’.