The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

20140525-milwaukee-zoo-6.jpgSometimes books sit on my shelf for a long time before I get around to reading them. This particular book sat mostly unread for about ten years. With a new software project starting up that desperately needs sensible design, I finally finished reading Alan Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.

The book is more or less divided into two parts. The first part aims to persuade the reader that software products are severely lacking in good user interaction, and that much improved user interaction could theoretically exist; the second part aims to persuade the reader that something can in fact be done about this problem.

It’s like the fellow who leads a huge bear on a chain into the town square and, for a small donation, will make the bear dance. The townspeople gather to see the wondrous sight as the massive, lumbering beast shambles and shuffles from paw to paw. The bear is really a terrible dancer, and the wonder isn’t that the bear dances well but that the bear dances at all.

Cooper argues that software users have endured many technological dancing bears, and that these users end up as either “apologists” or “survivors”. The apologists are delighted that the software functions, and make excuses for its poor user interaction design, claiming that it’s not really all that bad, and you just need to be more computer literate in order to use it. The survivors are less persuaded about the goodness of the software, but they don’t want to appear stupid by complaining about it, so they just quietly put up with it.

The apologists say, “Look what the computer lets me do!” The survivors say, “I guess I’m just too stupid to understand these newfangled machines.” The apologists say, “Look at this! A dancing bear!” The survivors say, “I need something that dances, so I guess a bear is the best I’m gonna get.”

Unfortunately, most of the people involved with creating software lean more toward the apologist side, failing to understand how incomprehensible the software comes across to people who do not enjoy challenging themselves with computer interaction puzzles.

When left to their own devices, programmers build software the way that makes the most sense to them. They frequently do not “design” the user interaction aspect at all, but rather just start coding. That may work well enough for programming tools like compilers and debuggers and text editors, but software that is meant to be used by non-programmers should take into account how those users think, and what those users want to do with the software.

Confusing, poorly-designed software development can be especially problematic when building custom software used internally in a business, for it is being foisted upon employees who lack the option to avoid using it.

Badly designed business software makes people dislike their jobs. Their productivity suffers, errors creep into their work, they try to cheat the software, and they don’t stay in the job very long. Losing employees is very expensive, not just in money but in disruption to the business, and the time lost can never be made up. Most people who are paid to use a tool feel constrained not to complain about that tool, but it doesn’t stop them from feeling frustrated and unhappy about it.

Cooper recommends that deliberate design should be a major part of a software project, and that it should take place before any user-facing software is written. Further, the design would best be done not by programmers, who are expert in intricate, mentally-challenging details, but rather by dedicated designers, who are in position to better advocate for the users. (It is conceivable that programmers could also be good designers, but there is often too much conflict of interest.)

What to Do?

What would good design look like? The second half of the book is overflowing with helpful ideas. Hitting on a few topics:

  • Don’t design for specific literal users; instead, based on real users, invent personas — fictional characters that represent your users. These will help keep the design process grounded without trying to account for every possible detail of every possible actual user. Trying to build software that pleases all the people all the time is unwise, as there are so many different potential users. Instead, focus on as few users — or as few personas — as possible, and do everything you can to make sure your software is not only liked by them, but utterly and completely loved.
  • Not all tasks that a user needs to accomplish in the software are equal, and they should not be presented as equal. If a typical user spends 95% of their time accessing five features, and 5% of their time accessing twenty other features, then make those first five the most prominent. Also, since your time to design is not infinite, devote more time to designing those five features than to designing the twenty that aren’t used as much.
  • Software design should be documented clearly and completely. While programmers should be free to get creative with the software internals, anything that impacts how the user interacts with the software should be plainly spelled out. Which is not to say that the design is unchangeable, but rather, that it shouldn’t be ignored or taken as a mere suggestion.
  • Users do not necessarily know what they want, nor do they (any more than random programmers) necessarily have any clue about software design. Accordingly, software should not be developed just as a laundry list of features requested by users. Some requested features might be good to add to a software product, but some might not. If adding a feature would ruin an otherwise good design, then it should be rejected. Listen to users, and endeavor to meet their needs, but do not obey users. They aren’t in control of the software product development.
  • Some very large companies (such as Microsoft, especially Microsoft of the 1980s and 1990s) can afford to publish poorly-designed software, accept insults and ridicule from users, and iterate new, improved versions of their software until the users are reasonably happy with it. Most companies cannot afford to do this, but seeing Microsoft do it can suggest that it is the optimal way to develop new software. All companies, big and small, would be better off doing real design rather than just flinging software out the door to see what users think they like, but small companies especially can’t afford not to design. [This might not be as true as it once was, since starting a small software company is so much less expensive than it used to be. Nevertheless, if a good product can be made right away through design rather than iterating through several bad products, it stands to reason that the design phase is still valuable.]


Many ideas that Cooper recommends for better software design I see happening today. Progress is being made; software is better than it was ten years ago. But many of the problems of bad software design still linger on. Perhaps most disconcerting is that the very concepts of software design that Cooper outlines seem to be neither taught in computer science education, nor advocated for in common practice. Clearly some programmers, some companies, must be implementing ideas along these lines, but the status quo appears to still be apologist programmers skipping the design phase on the way to shipping dancing bearware, which may or may not get iterated into something good.

For software developers, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I only wish that I had read it ten years ago, and maybe again every year since then. If you know a software developer, it’s not too late to get free Amazon shipping before Christmas.

Bonus: Song Lyric Meanings

I think it is now clear that, written in 1960s, Randy Newman’s song Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear is in fact about a programmer who skipped the design phase, dumping ill-conceived computer software on unsuspecting users:

The Chosen Few

IMG_6720Ever on the lookout for sound reasoning to support my book-buying habit, I just finished reading The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History. If you’re expecting a casual read, this book gets a bit academically verbose at times, but stays sufficiently action-packed so as not to get boring.

The central theme of the book revolves around the Jewish religious mandate that children be educated in reading and study of the Torah (i.e., the Jewish Bible), and how that this education, which was not required in other religious or cultural societies, led the Jewish people toward high literacy in general. This, in turn, made them fit for the most profitable occupations wherever they lived.

Running parallel with that main theme, the authors make the case that, while high literacy may be of spiritual value anywhere, it is only of financial value in developed, urban areas. Highly literate people may be well suited to work as bankers, physicians, and engineers, but if the only industry available as far as the eye can see is farming, then there’s not a lot of opportunity to engage in such high-paying work.

So Jewish people have, historically, sought to live in highly populated areas where they could make the most use of their literate professions. But not only have they sought out highly populated areas, they have sought out highly populated areas that were not already saturated with other (typically Jewish) people doing the same work. A city might have need for ten bankers, say, but perhaps not a hundred. This, the authors contend, played a significant role in Jewish people migrating to numerous disparate areas, rather than all sticking together in the same place.

But while they may not have all lived in the same cities, they remained connected. This, the authors explain, has been another factor in Jewish financial success over the years: they frequently networked with each other, meeting in person from time to time, but mainly through writing letters. They shared details about what goods were in most demand in a region, so that traveling Jewish merchants could be equipped to sell what people were most likely to buy.

They also maintained close connections with their spiritual leaders, those responsible for interpreting the Torah and Jewish traditions and offering guidance on how to conduct one’s life and business.

Finally, Jewish religious structures provided a framework for forming and enforcing contracts, which proved helpful as literate Jewish businessmen moved into perhaps their most profitable enterprise of lending money, to be repaid with interest. Of this occupation, Rabbi Joseph b. Samuel Tov Elem Bonfils wrote circa 1040:

Money lent on interest is profitable, because the pledge remains in the hand of the creditor, and the principal increases without effort or expense.

The work of being a merchant, or a craftsman, or a physician, or an engineer, required regular time and effort put into the job. The work of lending money involved filling out paperwork and keeping good records, but mostly doing nothing at all while payments came in.

In the time period that the book covers, there was a fairly sharp contrast between people who were “literate” and people who were “illiterate”, with the illiterate people being literally illiterate. In the final chapter, the authors hint at what will come in a future volume covering the years from 1492 through today, suggesting that while society as a whole has become more literate, Jewish people have persisted in seeking to be maximally literate; i.e., pursuing higher education and the most lucrative occupations intentionally.

What can we learn from this book to apply in our own lives? I think the most obvious takeaway is that it is good to cultivate a practice of learning, and especially learning things that would be the most beneficial, the most useful, the most profitable. Is the company that you work for opening a branch office in Brazil? Perhaps it would be worthwhile to study some Portuguese. Are you looking for employment in web development? While there’s plenty of PHP code still out there, the future looks brighter for JavaScript and Ruby.

But there are also some open problems for how we might apply the principles described in the book today. Some professions, such as physicians, will always be local to specific physical communities, but the world is increasingly flat. Local merchants are up against online retailers. Much professional work can be done entirely on computers, opening the door for the work to be done not by merely the best professionals in the city, but by the best professionals on the planet. (Or, alternately, the least expensive professionals on the planet…) The notion of being the best, most literate professional in a city, catering specifically to the people of that city, might not carry as much weight when candidates to do the job can be selected from any city at all.

On the other hand, the advantage of lending money as a business, namely that “the principal increases without effort or expense,” can be applied to many more fields today, by way of creating and selling digital products. Literate experts in any field can make books and software applications and multimedia products, which can be sold many times over without incurring any significant effort or expense beyond the initial production.

Other random tidbits from the book that I found interesting:

  • Over some of the time span covered, the cost of buying a book was routinely 2-4 times that of a typical monthly salary. This made education an especially costly activity!
  • Even around the first century, the Hebrew language was not heavily used by the Jewish people. As is common (at least in the United States) today, it was mainly used for reading and studying the Torah, and not so much for everyday writing and talking.
  • Jews were explicitly welcomed by many eleventh-century rulers in Germany. Bishop Rudiger of Speyer wrote a charter in favor of the Jewish people, which concluded with, “Lest any of my successors diminish this gift and concession … I have left this charter as a suitable testimony of the said grant. And that this may never be forgotten, I have signed it, and confirmed it with my seal as may be seen below. Given on September 15th, 1084.”

I found this book enjoyable and thought-provoking, and am looking forward to the sequel. I read a paperback edition, but the book is mostly plain text, with a few charts and maps, and would probably render well in Kindle format also.

The Dog Wars

IMG_6224After thoroughly enjoying Donald McCaig’s book Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men, I just finished reading a sort of sequel, The Dog Wars: How the Border Collie Battled the American Kennel Club.

Never having come across reason to believe otherwise, I had thought of the AKC as a respectable organization that advances knowledge of dogs and promotes their well-being. I cheerfully accepted AKC STAR Puppy status on behalf of my own border collie after she completed a puppy training class. So I started reading this book under the assumption that border collie owners “battled” the AKC in an effort to make the AKC recognize and accept their dog breed. In fact, most United States border collie owners — at least those who gave the matter any thought at all — were adamantly against border collies being officially recognized by the AKC.

Border collies have traditionally been working dogs, bred especially with sheep herding in mind. For most of their history, little if any regard was given to what they color they were, how big they were, what manners they had, or any attributes at all except how well they did at herding sheep. Could your dog excel at this task? Then that dog might as well be a border collie. [I personally imagine that, at an old-school sheepdog trial, even a pig might have been more welcomed than some might have us believe…]

The main official function of the AKC has long been to maintain registrations of dogs, for the purpose of demonstrating that a dog was “pure” in breed, and of some particular lineage. In practice, McCaig describes, many activities of the AKC revolve around hosting show events that are driven by exhibiting dogs for their appearance and physical attributes as opposed to for what they can do. At best, breeding dogs for appearance can hinder their specialized behaviors (like herding sheep), as such traits do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, genetically speaking. But worse, breeding dogs for appearance can introduce physical malaties, resulting in dogs with sundry genetic diseases.

As in his previous book, author McCaig himself played a role in the story, as he was significantly involved in spearheading an effort to prevent the AKC from accepting dog registrations of border collies, lest the working utility of the breed be diminished and the risk of poor genetic health be increased. The Dog Wars paints a picture of an utterly idiotic American Kennel Club, which seems to not be able to care any less about the long-term well-being of border collies, and which seems to, for reasons not made clear (either to us the readers or, apparently, to McCaig) stubbornly insist upon incorporating border collies into its ranks.

Over several years in the early 1990s, McCaig sought legal counsel and assistance, and help from existing border collie registration associations which concurred that little or no good was likely to come from the AKC accepting their dogs. Unfortunately, the story comes to a somewhat anti-climactic ending when one of the three major border collie registrars seems, while agreeable to the cause, insufficiently interested in providing their support until after the AKC had already started registering border collies. The legal plan fizzled out with nothing further to be done.

But while the border collie proponents may have lost the war with the AKC, they won plenty of smaller battles, and still did much good. Through publishing articles about their cause in newspapers nationwide, and eventually gathering attention from national television news programs, their concerns about breeding dogs purely for appearance became more widespread. Public interest in “pure-bred” dogs decreased, and acceptance of dogs of “lesser” pedigree rose. In the end, while the American Kennel Club began registering border collies, most border collie owners ignored the AKC, and continued using the long-established border collie registrars, and attending their own self-governed sheep herding events rather than joining the AKC shows. So much of the risk that McCaig and company were concerned about was mitigated not by winning their plea against the AKC, but by better educating the people whose dogs might have otherwise been negatively impacted.

The book is also peppered with side-stories about dogs (mostly border collies, of course) that don’t have anything in particular to do with the main theme of going up against the American Kennel Club. In a poignant style typical of his previous book, McCaig shares about his border collie Silk whose life was drawing to a close. She was not particularly discerning about food, and had little interest for toys. What could he possibly do to make her feel more appreciated, more loved?

Silk liked it when [my wife] took her on solo walks because, in a four dog pack, it was a privilege to be walked alone. I took her out for training. I’d stand in the middle of our flock and signal her: go left, go right. I’d show her the bottom of my palms: lie down. I’d signal her to walk up on her sheep; when they broke, she’d cover them. The old, deaf, dying dog ran around the sheep until her tongue hung out.

Afterwards, she’d come up to me for a pat and she was quite pleased with herself: “Aren’t I such a good sheepdog?” …

All that we can give a dog that the dog will value is our time.

Is the AKC of today the same misguided organization that McCaig tells us about? My limited experience with them as been positive, and this book describes events that took place twenty-some years ago. Judge for yourself, but beware judges — AKC or otherwise — who value your dog’s appearance over your dog’s health, or the health of the entire breed.

Alone Together: Socializing through Technology

We’ve already looked at the first half of Alone Together, which focused on how people are increasingly socializing with technology, especially with artificially-intelligent robots. The second half covers how people are increasingly socializing with each other through technology.

Except maybe for those who stay at home all day talking only to robots, it’s obvious that ever-advancing technology has had a huge impact on how we communicate with each other. What might not be obvious is to what extent we are becoming dependent upon technology for communication, and either consciously or subconsciously avoiding traditional in-person conversations, and even telephone conversations, pushing as much as possible into the asynchronous world of electronic messaging.

Many people interviewed delight in constantly receiving messages; every incoming message is something new to look at. Even if the messages in fact interrupt something else they were doing, it doesn’t matter:

“I’m waiting to be interrupted right now,” one says. For him, what I would term “interruption” is the beginning of a connection.

Some not only relish constant communication from others, but rely on it to help shape and determine their own thoughts. When faced with an opportunity to feel upset or sad, sending and receiving text messages with a friend can be used to solidify what exactly is the right emotional response. But there’s no time for a telephone call or an in-person conversation; they feel lost without immediate input over text messages.

Not too many years ago, friends and family routinely chatted with each other over telephone. Now, a telephone call is often viewed as a last resort; emails and text messages are so much more convenient and less intrusive, with a telephone call requiring more personal attention from both parties.

Tara, a fifty-five-year-old lawyer who juggles children, a job, and a new marriage, [says that] “When you ask for a call, the expectation is that you have pumped it up a level. People say to themselves: ‘It’s urgent or she would have sent an email.’” So Tara avoids the telephone. …

Randolph, a forty-six-year-old architect with two jobs, two young children, and a twelve-year-old son from a former marriage … explains, “Now that there is e-mail, people expect that a call will be more complicated. Not about facts. A fuller thing. People expect it to take time — or else you wouldn’t have called. …

A widow of fifty-two grew up on volunteer work and people stopping by for afternoon tea. Now she works full-time as an office manager. Unaccustomed to her new routine, she says she is “somewhat surprised” to find that she has stopped calling her friends. She is content to send e-mails and Facebook messages. She says, “A call feels like an intrusion, as though I would be intruding on my friends … After work — I want to go home, look at some photos from the grandchildren on Facebook, send some e-mails and feel in tough. I’m tired. I’m not ready for people — I mean people in person.”

As convenient as electronic messages may be, people are increasingly consumed by them, giving attention to the incoming notifications on their phone over people that are physically present, regardless of the urgency of the messages. The attention that children receive from parents seems particularly diminished: they may be present physically — pushing the child on a swing, eating dinner at the table, watching a football game on television — but often with one hand firmly grasping a smartphone, and their attention elsewhere.

Audrey complains of her mother’s inattention when she picks her up at school or after sports practice. At these times, Audrey says, her mother is usually focused on her cell phone, either texting or talking to friends. Audrey describes the scene: she comes out of the gym exhausted, carrying heavy gear. Her mother sits in her beaten-up SUV, immersed in her cell, and doesn’t even look up until Audrey opens the car door. Sometimes her mother will make eye contact but remain engrossed with the phone as they begin the drive home. Audrey says, “It gets between us, but it’s hopeless. She’s not going to give it up. Like, it could have been four days since I last spoke to her, then I sit in the car and wait in silence until she’s done.

Audrey has a fantasy of her mother, waiting for her, expectant, without a phone.

A constant barrage of incoming messages not only has an impact on interacting with other people in the room, but on completing work in the room:

“I’m trying to write,” says a professor of economics. “My article is due. But I’m checking my e-mail every two minutes. And then, the worst is when I change the setting so that I don’t have to check the e-mail. It just comes in with a ‘ping.’ So now I’m like Pavlov’s dog. I’m sitting around, waiting for that ping. I should ignore it. But I go right to it.” …

An art critic with a book deadline took drastic measures: “I went away to a cabin. And I left my cell phone in the car. In the trunk. My idea was that maybe I would check it once a day. I kept walking out of the house to open the trunk and check the phone. I felt like an addict, like the people at work who huddle around the outdoor smoking places they keep on campus, the outdoor ashtray places. I kept going to that trunk.”

But shifting conversation to electronic messages is not without clear benefits as well. Children growing up and moving away from home are able to keep in frequent contact with their parents, easing the transition for everyone. While placing dozens of phone calls to your parents might seem excessive, sending dozens of text messages feels perfectly normal.

With so many omnipresent means of communication, we never have to be alone. But on the other hand, we may never learn how to be alone: how to think thoughts entirely of our own, how to occupy ourselves without the input from others. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? While younger people are generally enamored with communications technology, some are starting to feel like maybe life before technology had something better to offer:

Hillary is fond of movies but drawn toward “an Amish life minus certain exceptions [these would be the movies] … but I wouldn’t mind if the Internet went away.” She asks, “What could people be doing if they weren’t on the Internet?” She answers her own question: “There’s piano; there’s drawing; there’s all these things people could be creating.”

The important takeaway here may be that communications technology, like technology in general, can be both used and abused. It’s up to us to use it wisely, and not let it overtake our lives. But, as several interviewees reported, technology has a strong pull to it, often stronger than we are capable of resisting. It takes deliberate thought and action to not be drawn too far in.

With lives lived so much online, does the next generation of technology users have any qualms about privacy? It appears that they are neither in favor of nor dismissing online privacy, preferring to not think about it much:

The media has tended to portray today’s young adults as a generation that no longer cares about privacy. I have found something else, something equally disquieting. High school and college students don’t really understand the rules. Are they being watched? Who is watching? Do you have to do something to provoke surveillance, or is it routine? Is surveillance legal? They don’t really understand the terms of service for Facebook or Gmail, the mail service Google provides. They don’t know what protections they are “entitled” to. They don’t know what objections are reasonable or possible. …

There is an upside to vagueness. What you don’t know won’t make you angry. Julia says, “Facebook and MySpace are my life.” If she learned something too upsetting about what, say, Facebook can do with her information, she would have to justify staying on the site. But Julia admits that whatever she finds out, even if her worst fears of surveillance by high school administrators and local police were true, she would not take action. She cannot imagine her life without Facebook.

The book concludes with some thoughts that purposefully keeping some of our most cherished thoughts and conversations in analog form may be in our own best interest; for example, hand-written letters received from dear friends and family seem to hold more emotional value than text messages, and the very act of writing and sending a letter suggests putting more of yourself into the communique than sending an email.

Whatever your persuasion of communications technology use, taking the time to consider the thoughts and situations chronicled in Alone Together should give some additional perspective from which to more strongly base your opinions. A very enjoyable a thought-provoking read.

Alone Together: Socializing with Technology

Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together presents a well-researched look at how technology is changing the way we socialize, both with each other, and with technology itself.

In the first part of the book, we are introduced to an array of increasingly complex robots designed to offer some degree of social interaction with people, and and descriptions of studies of how people react to these robots. Laying the groundwork for these robots, we first get a review of ELIZA, an early artificial intelligence computer program. Fairly well known amongst computer scientists, ELIZA was written to mimic a psychotherapist, accepting text input from the user and responding with meaningless questions formed by trivial rephrasing of the human-supplied sentences.

Even when knowledgeable about how ELIZA worked, many people found it grossly engaging, attributing intellect and emotional involvement to the program that simply was not there. This turns out to be a recurring theme through Turkle’s descriptions of social robots: people are inclined to find attributes of intelligence where there are none, and to interpret any plausible signal of emotional attachment coming from the robot, no matter how slight, as evidence that the robot actually feels something and, on some level, cares for and connects with its human users.


The first actual robot looked at is just slightly more a “robot” than ELIZA was: the small, handheld Tamagotchi, marketed as a “digital pet”. Bestowed by their programmers with algorithms meant to simulate needing care and attention, children worldwide have felt compelled to treat these electronic trinkets with far more compassion than one might expect:

In the presence of a needy Tamagotchi, children become responsible parents: demands translate into care and care into the feeling of caring. …

[One child] says that his Tamagotchi is “like a baby. You can’t just change the baby’s diaper. You have to, like, rub cream on the baby. That is how the baby knows you love it.” …

Three nine-year-olds consider their Tamagotchis. One is excited that his pet requires him to build a castle as its home. “I can do it. I don’t want him to get cold and sick and to die.”

Can a Tamagotchi actually die? Its programming allows it to “pass away” on the screen, but a reset button brings it back to “life”. However, as a Tamagotchi is used, its programming causes it to appear increasingly intelligent, developing one attribute or another based on how the user’s interaction with it. Restarting a “dead” Tamagotchi does not bring it back to the same state it was in, and children are aware of this:

“It’s cheating. Your Tamagotchi is really dead. Your one is really dead. They say you get it back, but it’s not the same one. It hasn’t had the same things happen to it. It’s like they give you a new one. It doesn’t remember the life it had.”

“When my Tamagotchi dies, I don’t want to play with the new one who can pop up. It makes me remember the real one [the first one]. I like to get another [a new egg]…. If you made it die, you should start fresh.”

Good business for the manufacturer, many children interviewed were adept at persuading their parents to buy new Tamagotchis after one “died”, even though restarting the software on the “dead” one was functionally the same as starting with a brand new one. Somehow, the simple electronic toy truly became alive, not by any stunning prowess on the part of its programmers, but by the fervent belief of the children you played with it.

Taking the idea of the Tamagotchi to a new level, the Furby is a similarly-needy collection of algorithms packaged into a furry stuffed toy. Looking more like, feeling more like a living being makes it more compelling than a handheld digital screen. One researcher conducted a test to see where in the spectrum of inanimate things and living creatures the Furby fell:

A person is asked to invert three creates: a Barbie doll, a Furby, and a biological gerbil. [The] question is simple: “How long can you hold the object upside down before your emotions make you turn it back.

While the Barbie doll says nothing, a Furby turned upside down whines and claims to be afraid, and the study finds the Furby somewhere in between alive and not:

“People are willing to be carrying the Barbie around by the feet, slinging it by the hair … no problem. … People are not going to mess around with their gerbil. … [People will] hold the Furby upside down for thirty seconds or so, but when it starts crying and saying it’s scared, most people feel guilty and turn it over.”

While the people in the study knew full well that the Furby was not alive, its somewhat lifelike form and programmed response elicited emotions sufficiently like those brought about by an actual living creature that it was difficult to relate to the Furby strictly as the machine that it is.

Kara, a woman in her fifties, reflects on holding a moaning Furby that says it is scared. She finds it distasteful, “not because I believe that the Furby is really scared, but because I’m not willing to hear anything talk like that and respond by continuing my behavior. It feels to me that I could be hurt if I keep doing this. … In that moment, the Furby comes to represent how I treat creatures.”

As with the Tamagotchis, a Furby undergoes simulated learning as it is played with, making a well-loved Furby different from a brand new one. When, in the course of studying children’s reactions to a Furby, one of them broke, one child was given a replacement:

[He] wants little to do with it. He doesn’t talk to it or try to teach it. His interest is in “his” Furby, the Furby he nurtured, the Furby he taught. He says, “The Furby that I had before could say ‘again’; it could say ‘hungry.’” … The first Furby was never “annoying,” but the second Furby is. His Furby is irreplaceable.


While a Furby may vaguely resemble a living creature, it’s a totally fictitious creature. What happens when a robot is designed to imitate an actual living creature? AIBO was built to behave like a pet dog, and some children found its behavior sufficiently convincing, and then some:

Yolanda … first sees AIBO as a substitute: “AIBO might be a good practice for all children whose parents aren’t ready to take care of a real dog.” But then she takes another step: in some ways AIBO might be better than a real dog. “The AIBO,” says Yolanda, “doesn’t shed, doesn’t bite, doesn’t die.” More than this, a robotic companion can be made as you like it. Yolanda muses about how nice it would be to “keep AIBO at a puppy stage for people who like to have puppies.”

Another child was convinced that AIBO was capable of emotion, even though it was not:

Oliver does not see AIBO’s current lack of emotionality as a fixed thing. On the contrary. “Give him six months,” Oliver says. “That’s how long it took [the biological hamster] to really love. … If it advanced more, if it had more technology, it could certainly love you in the future.”

In the future, he says, or even now:

“AIBO loves me. I love AIBO.” As far as Oliver is concerned, AIBO is alive enough for them to be true companions.

On the other hand, some children found AIBO’s lack of emotional attachment to be a positive thing:

Pets have long been thought good for children because they teach responsibility and commitment. AIBO permits something different: attachment without responsibility. Children love their pets, but at times … they feel burdened by their pets’ demands. … But now children see a future where something different may be available. With robot pets, children can give enough to feel attached, but then they can turn away. They are learning a way of feeling connected in which they have permission to think only of themselves.

Given how many children (and even adults) desire the companionship of a pet, but either cannot or will not accept the responsibility of adequately caring for it, often resulting in animals with warped personalities being dropped off at overbooked shelters, perhaps getting a fraction of the companionship of a real pet in exchange for the ability to put it away whenever you like will be a welcome option for some people.

The Cutting Edge

Moving on from commercialized robot products, a number of children were brought into the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab to [be studied as they] interact with the state of the art of robotic creatures. The robot Kismet was designed with large eyes that appeared to gaze at whatever person or object caught its attention, and with large ears to seemingly listen to what was being said to it, and with a mouth to speak infant-like babbling sounds in response to what it “heard”. Many children found Kismet enjoyable, believing that it understood them, and was trying its best to speak intelligibly back at them. Some children, though, were underwhelmed with Kismet’s ability to talk:

With no prologue, Edward walks up to Kismet and asks, “Can you talk?” When Kismet doesn’t answer, Edward repeats his question at greater volume. Kismet stares into space. Again, Edward asks, “Can you talk?” Now, Kismet speaks in the emotionally layered babble that has delighted other children or puzzled them into inventive games. … He tries to understand Kismet: “What?” “Say that again?” “What exactly?” “Huh? What are you saying?” After a few minutes, Edward decides that Kismet is making no sense. He tells the robot, “Shut up!” And then, Edward picks up objects in the laboratory and forces them into Kismet’s mouth — first a metal pin, then a pencil, then a toy caterpillar. Edward yells, “Chew this! Chew this!” Absorbed by hostility, he remains engaged with the robot.

Children are by no means alone in becoming emotionally attached to robots. Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, Kismet’s creator, accepted a position in another lab at MIT and had to leave Kismet behind:

Breazeal describes a sharp sense of loss. Building a new Kismet will not be the same. This is the Kismet she has “raised” from a “child.” She says she would not be able to part with Kismet if she weren’t sure it would remain with people who would treat it well.

Caring Robots

The attachment between robots and their creators aside, is the only purpose for social robots to be whimsical toys and children’s playthings? Widespread in Japan, and increasingly in the United States, is the use of social robots as companions for the elderly in nursing homes. The robot Paro, for example, has been mass-produced as a “therapeutic robot”:

Miriam’s son has recently broken off his relationship with her. He has a job and family on the West Coast, and when he visits, he and his mother quarrel — he feels she wants more from him than he can give. Now Miriam sits, quietly, stroking Paro, a sociable robot in the shape of a baby harp seal. … [It] has a small working English vocabulary for “understanding” its users … [and] can sense whether it is being stroked gently or with aggression. Now, with Paro, Miriam is lost in her reverie, patting down the robot’s soft fur with care. On this day, she is particularly depressed and believes that the robot is depressed as well. She turns to Paro, strokes him again, and says, “Yes, you’re sad, aren’t you? It’s tough out there. Yes, it’s hard.” Miriam’s tender touch triggers a warm response in Paro: it turns its head toward her and purrs approvingly. Encouraged, Miriam shows yet more affection for the little robot. In attempting to provide the comfort she believes it needs, she comforts herself.

Is this a positive direction to be heading, leaving the elderly to be comforted by robots? Many study participants found the supplementary companionship of robots to be preferable to being alone, and sometimes even preferable to being with someone, as sharing private emotional thoughts with a robot felt easier than with another person.

What about helping the elderly with physical needs? For that there is Nursebot:

… which can help elderly people in their homes, reminding them of their medication schedule and to eat regular meals. Some models can bring medicine or oxygen if needed. In an institutional setting, a hospital or nursing home, it learns the terrain. It knows patients’ schedules and accompanies them where they need to go.

Many people who experienced the care of Nursebot found it appealing. While they would not want to see robots entirely replace human care, they found it perfectly acceptable as a supplement. Some even found it superior, with one person reporting that:

“Robots … will not abuse the elderly like some humans do in convalescent care facilities.”

Others wrote that many of their human care providers kept themselves so emotionally distant that they might as well be replaced by robots.


Going from trivial electronic toys to animatronic creatures to machines for helping people both emotionally and physically, robotics technology is clearly ready for real everyday use, and society seems ready to accept it. The two parties are meeting in the middle; technology has certainly been advancing, but where it still lacks, people are willing to fill in the gaps with their imagination. Robots may not be real living creatures, but for many purposes they are real enough, and for some purposes they are better.

We’ll look at the second half of the book, covering advances in humans interacting with other humans through technology, in a future post. If you’ve found this much interesting, you can pick up a copy of the book for yourself, either in printed or electronic form.