Are People Falling In Love with Computers?

We like our PCs, cell phones and robots. We need them. OK, say it with me: We love them.
Posted October 9, 2007

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

Social scientists have recently begun to piece together a growing and disturbing phenomenon: People are falling in love with their PCs, cell phones and robots.

There's no question that we're becoming increasingly dependent on our computers and gadgets. And it's common to hear people casually say things like, "I love my new iPhone." But is it true love?

Consider this: The most pervasive home robot product in the U.S. is iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner. More than 2 million have been sold to date, according to the company. A study conducted by Beki Grinter, an associate professor at Georgia Tech's College of Computing, found that some Roomba owners are forming attachments with their vacuums -- and I don't mean that skinny plastic tube used for cleaning in corners. Some give their Roomba cleaners names, refer to them as "he" rather than "it," dress them up with custom-made clothing, buy new rugs for them to vacuum, and even bring them along on vacations!

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Some 64 percent of Americans spend more time with their computers than with their significant others, according to a survey commissioned by a Silicon Valley-based SupportSoft. And 84 percent reported being more dependent on their PCs than they were just three years ago.

Almost a third of young adults surveyed in the UK would rather give up sex than cell phones. The Mobile Life study found that 63 percent said their cell phone is "vital to maintaining their quality of life."

And Market Tools recently conducted a survey which suggests that for young people, losing a cell phone is more painful than breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. More than half said their social lives would suffer if they lost their cell phones.

What's going on?

Emotional attachment can result from factors that have nothing to do with "love." For example, teens who talk about inseparability from cell phones are really expressing their desire not for a relationship with the phone, but to maintain contact with peers.

Similarly, "love" for PCs or gaming systems in some cases might stem from the feeling of power or freedom they give us when they're fast and trouble-free. And a "better" system is, by definition for some users, one that empowers us more. We love power and freedom, not metal and plastic.

Others buy consumer electronics as an expression of personal identity in the same way people buy clothes or a car -- essentially to communicate who they are (or who they want people to think they are). In this case, the "love" and attachment is really self love, not gadget love.

True Love

Despite all this, I really do think people are genuinely falling in love with some machines -- especially robots. If the dull, flat Roomba can elicit emotion, just wait. A new generation of intelligent, humanoid robots is on the horizon.

One example is a home robot called Zeno. The humanoid robot being developed by Hanson Robotics (modeled after the Japanese comic character, Astro Boy) is being designed to recognize your face, learn your name, make eye contact with you and carry on conversations. Hanson says it even express "emotions."

Because Zeno will cost only $300 or so, it's likely to be a big hit. (Zeno is inexpensive because it uses software running on your home PC -- connected via Wi-Fi -- to power its brain.)

I'm predicting that a lot of people will treat this product like a pet, or a family member. In short, they'll fall in love with it.

The reason is that humans are hard-wired to care more about apparently intelligent creatures than dumb ones. Greenpeace wants to save the whales, but couldn't care less about the insects. Bugs are just too stupid for us to feel anything for them. And they're too ugly.

When you combine "intelligent" with "cute" (as the robot makers will) -- forget about it. We can't resist. That's just how we are.

When Zeno and other future humanoid robots start sharing our homes, that part of the human brain that forms bonds of affection and attachment to puppies and kittens will kick in, and we'll make them part of the family.

Which raises the question: Where is all this going?

If people can fall in love with a vacuum cleaner this year and a robot boy next year, how will they feel about the super advanced humanoid and pet-like robots twenty years from now? How about our PCs after they acquire the capacity for speech? What happens when interaction with our cell phones takes place via an intelligent "agent"?

Will some people prefer "relationships" with machines over people? Do they already?

I don't know exactly, but I do believe machine love will prove to be a disruptive trend from now and increasingly into the future. So brace yourself: Machine love is coming soon.

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