Somehow, this gives me hope...

>> Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Researchers in San Diego put a giggling robot in a classroom of toddlers. What happened? The kids bonded with it:

Eventually, the children seemed to care about the robot's well being. They helped it up when it fell, and played "care-taking" games with it – most commonly, when QRIO's batteries ran out of juice and it lay down, a toddler would come up and cover it with a blanket and say "night, night". Altering QRIO's behaviour also changed the children's attitude towards the robot. When the researchers programmed QRIO to spend all its time dancing, the kids quickly lost interest. When the robot went back to its old self, the kids again treated it like a peer again.
Many folks have a tendency to assume the worst about "human nature," and (let's face it) sometimes it's hard to blame them. But human nature, for better or worse, is that we are a social, tribal creature. That's not an unalloyed good: identifying with a tribe includes a dollop of xenophobia that can lead to the bloodiest of conflicts. But it also means that we are hardwired with a certain degree of empathy: humans are pack animals, and the best chance a human animal has for passing its genes on to the next generation is if the pack survives.

What's interesting, and hopeful, about the San Diego experiment is that it suggests (to me, at least) that empathic instincts are present fairly early. Introduce a "creature" into a young pack, and the pack adapts to take care of it. The xenophobic behaviors, perhaps, come later. Or am I reading too much into this?

Or am I not reading enough? When the QRIO stopped behaving "normally"--when it danced constantly, instead of responding to social contact (giggling when touched) and "sleeping" when tired, the kids shunned it.

At any rate, I'd like to look at it as an example that there's an inherent goodness to human "nature." But I also didn't get enough sleep last night. Conclude what you will.


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