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Scientific VIEW

Befriending Animals and Computers


Merlin is a toy, a computer toy that little Jimmy has forsaken his teddy bear for. Fearful of the psychological consequences of sleeping with a green plastic computer, Jimmy's mother gave him a kitten. Jimmy likes her too. Now his emotional allegiances are divided between Merlin and Melissa, the cat.

He plays tick-tack-toe with Merlin, and unwind-the-ball-of-yarn with Melissa. Now I wonder, is he more closely related to his cat or to his computer? When he interacts with Melissa, it is on the level of feeding and stroking her, but he can actually exchange thoughts with his machine.

Questions like these were the focus of a recent conference at Stanford that was co-sponsored by the Humanities Center and the School of Engineering, on "Humans, Animals, Machines: Boundaries and Projections."

Like it or not, the lines dividing animals, humans and machines are blurrier than they used to be. Even as computers challenge our unique roles as thinkers, zoologists startle us almost daily with evidence that animals from bees to monkeys live socially, learn from each other, and even indulge in such human pastimes as infanticide, incest and recreational sex.

"Before computers, people thought of animals as our nearest neighbors in the universe, said MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, the author of "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit." After studying the ways children interact with computers, she concludes, "Where we were once rational animals, now we are 'feeling computers,' 'emotional machines.' "

Human, animal, machine--the conferees agreed on two points. The first is that as a species we are in the midst of an identity crisis. Once rulers of the universe, we now perceive our uniqueness challenged by other animals that may claim respect comparable to that we give ourselves, while the very machines we have created threaten us with intellectual obsolescence.

The second is that regardless of the eventual outcome, whether computers will make human thinking irrelevant, as some AI (artificial intelligence) experts insist, or merely change the world as powerfully as the invention of the printing press did 500 years ago, they have already altered the way we think.

Are machines that think and man-made animals real threats? Or simply challenges? As we find that we fill a smaller space in the universe as we perceive it, we have to define the nature of that space. And while we perceive the "others," animals and machines as monsters threatening our turf, we have to remember that, at the moment, we hold the power of their survival in our hands, and not the reverse.

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