artificial companions

I'm on the train from Luxembourg to Saarbruecken as I'm writing this - it is very pretty, rolling hills, cows in pastures and forests, long thin pointy steeples here and there, occasional castles. It is certainly Autumn up here and there are tall dead grasses. I guess it is logical that central Europe is more like Illinois than the UK is, at least for seasons.

Which reminds me that I was sitting next to a Dutch woman when I flew from Heathrow (after Oxford) to Amsterdam on the way to Luxembourg last night. She'd been flying 24 hours from New Zealand where she'd been on holiday a month. She was complaining bitterly about how short holidays are in the Netherlands and that she wished she could have stayed 5 or 6 weeks like in other European countries. But as we cam ein to land she said "at last, flat ground! That's what I really missed. When you are always in the mountains you have no idea where you are, it's all curves and twists." I have to say that is never one of the things I missed about Illinois, although I do have sympathy with liking to know which direction you are headed.

I am reading about the project I am about to review, which is called Rascalli. They are virtual agents to live on the internet and assist their owners. In fact, the nature of life in society if we do have intelligent digital assistants was the topic of the meeting Will and I attended at Oxford last week, but then we were imagining they actually worked. Still, given particularly the talk I saw by Ipke a week ago, not to mention the progress on the EU projects I review, I think we will have *something* working fairly soon.

Well, really we already do. Sherry Turkle was the only public invited speaker for the Oxford meeting. Her research is cultural / anthropological --- she looks at how AI and other technology is and does affect people in our (well, American) culture, particularly with respect to their understanding of self image, human relationships and life. She's done a lot of work on how children develop a concept of what is alive.

She talked about how she had to do a rapid evaluation of Kismet and Cog (the MIT robots) while they were working and pulled lots of children in from playgrounds -- ordinary children, even poorer than ordinary children, since really Cambridge is a city, and how different it was than going to do studies in private schools where teachers were open minded and there were a lot of computers so she could do her high-tech tests. The children were crazy about Kismet, but overheard that Cynthia was moving to another lab and not taking her robot with her (it went to a museum so noone had to maintain it :-). They totally understood Cynthia as having a mothering rather than a building relationship since Kismet seemed alive, and were horrified by this and sad for both the robot and Cynthia. These were not little children, I saw them --- they were more like 10 year olds.

Anyway, Sherry was also very worried about what was happening to the psyche because children never have the experience now of being independent of their parents and really self reliant. For example, most urba children used to have the experience between 11-13 of having to navigate the city by themselves, really not having anyone there to help them. But now everyone has a cell phone, so they miss this enormous ritual. Although I suspect they just delay it, since if they are like me they forget to recharge their cell phone sometimes, but maybe kids are more careful if they are more obsessed with communication.

She talked about these highly distributed relationships kids make, chatting to many people simultaneously, preferring texting to talking. She's worried about the consequences of this with respect to forming relationships. I do think this is an open problem. Already people spend so much time watching TV and playing video games where previously loneliness might have got them out of the house and talking to other people. Which might make them more aware citizens -- aware of what is really happening to people around them when, say, government policies change, rather than just hearing what the government wants them to hear on Fox news. One of the main determinants of which party people vote for in the US is not what state they happen to live in (that's just how it gets reported), but rather how nearby their neighbours are.

There's no question that loneliness is bad for health as well as happiness, but if there are all these ways to feel less lonely, will it make more people isolated than would have been lonely if they had fewer options? It's kind of like the welfare debate -- if you cut welfare, more people work but the people who can't work suffer more than they did before.

Anyway, I should get back to work on my review. I will say the Oxford trip was great --- we were put up in a famous five star hotel and had dinner in a room at Trinity college which was very elegant. I also was taken to lunch at Pembroke college before the meeting by Alex Kalcelnik, who was not only brilliant and doing very interesting research, but also an incredible gentleman.

I just changed trains in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The tunnel between platforms was solid graffiti, and the train station, which was quite large, was entirely boarded up with lots of broken windows. Yet in the 8 minutes I had to change trains four trains came through that stopped and one that didn't, and the two I was involved with (coming in and going out) were punctual to the minute.

They are nearly empty. Nothing happens in many parts of Europe on a Sunday still. What a waste. I was telling a Pakistani-American couple we met in the Milan airport (doctors who live in Ohio but were going to Armenia) that I remember when having shops open on Sundays was controversial in Scotland (1990s) and Illinois (1970s). Hopefully that will keep changing for the better, but look at Iran and Iraq -- secular for decades and now women are locked in their houses. You can never tell.

I'm realizing I'm old enough to tell stories like that now, about the old days. People my grandparent's age are largely dead, so I have to tell their stories for them, and people just a generation before me in academia are starting to worry about forced retirement in a few years (still legal in the EU and normally set to 65.)

So much for the "perfectly punctual" --- I got kicked off the train in a town I wasn't even supposed to stop in, and told to wait an hour for a bus when there wasn't even a train station (the old one was now a house.) the driver was sitting there so I got directions into town and am in a gasthause now waiting for whatever they can feed me in ten minutes! "a salad" apparently. I phoned Luxembourg to complain and they were really confused about what has happened, so I'll have to complain again in Saarbruecken. But anyway, I hope the food is good.

Its funny given the title of this post -- blogs are sort of artificial companions. You feel like you are talking to someone but really you are just writing.


I have seen Sherry Turkle talking about her work at an Android Science workshop. She is very passionate about it.