Thursday, January 25, 2007

Do you care that the turtle is alive?

In her lecture "A Nascent Robotics Culture: New Complicities for Companionship," Sherry Turkle of MIT writes about visiting the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History with her daughter. Outside the exhibit area was a live Galapagos tortoise in a cage. Turkle's daughter said "they could have used a robot" instead, because the tortoise wasn't doing anything--so why bother with a live one?

I begin to talk with others at the exhibit, parents and children... The line is long, the crowd frozen in place. My question, “Do you care that the turtle is alive?” is welcome diversion[.... ] A twelve-year-old girl opines: “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.”

I find the children’s position strangely unsettling. For them, in this context, aliveness seems to have no intrinsic value. Rather, it is useful only if needed for a specific purpose. “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, say several of the children. Data on “aliveness” can be shared on a “need to know” basis, for a purpose. But what are the purposes of living things? When do we need to know if something is alive?

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