A common theme in many Science Fiction stories is the question: Can computers be programmed to have emotions, feelings, and therefore souls? This is a subject that is explored in many philosophy, sci-fi and theology circles, but the question arises based solely on human’s capacity to experience such feelings. In other words, because we humans can feel happy, or sad, or content then we wonder if the things that we build can somehow be programmed to mirror the same emotional ranges that we feel.
It is obvious that human beings and machines are vastly different things; for example, a computer will not get offended or defensive even if you shout at it. However, it is increasingly clear that people are defendant upon their computers for work, school, information, and communication and therefore we do tend to feel somewhat attached to them, abet on a purely unemotional level.
Yet, is it possible for someone to be truly emotionally attached to a machine? If so, can this ever be healthy? Can a mechanical device teach a human being lessons about responsibility and compassion for actual living things? Although these are controversial questions with no clear cut answer, there is evidence to suggest that technology can be used to teach compassionate and responsible behavior—especially when the technology is being used by young children.
Currently, children are more adept at using computers than any other previous generation and there are subsequently an abundance of online toys and games that have heavily technical. One of the most popular branches of computerized toys is the “virtual pet” and this phenomenon has been around since the 1990s.
In 1996 the digital pet known as “tamagotchi” became a hot toy on the market. Although originally started in Japan, tamagotchis popularity quickly spread all over the world. Tamagotchis are tiny computerized robots in the shape of eggs that are usually used as key chains. Tamagotchis go through life stages from babies to elderly and they require different sorts of care. They need to be fed, played with, cared for when sick and even disciplined when they misbehave. All of these actions can be achieve via a few clicks of the buttons on the devices. However, all of these caretaking actions require that the owner take the time to look out for the tamagotchis wellbeing, which generally means checking on it several times every day.
Although having a digital pet such as a tamagotchi—which are still available as key chains and now also as purely virtual pets—is very different from owning a real-life pet, children who had a tamagotchi and cared for it successfully sometimes use their responsible virtual pet ownership as a way to get their parents to agree to buy them a flesh and bones pet, such as a hamster or a goldfish.
Yet the use of inanimate objects to instigate emotional reactions in humans has been used long before intricate technology was commonplace in toys and games. An example of this is the RealCare Baby, a doll that uses basic technology to simulate actual human infant behavior, such as crying at random. The “RealCare Baby Program” has been adopted in many schools around the country to help young people realize all the responsibilities that go with raising a child. Regular feeding, burping, diaper changing and rocking are required to adequately care for the doll. If someone loses their temper and slaps or shakes the doll (common behaviors in the abuse of infants) then an alarm goes off inside the doll to alert others that the caregiver has failed in their duties. Some dolls even have the ability to illustrate the kind of brain damage that babies who are shaken experience as well as the mental problems that children born with alcohol and drug related issues face.
Behavior is a pattern and chances are that the way a person reacts to an inanimate object that mimics certain aspects of a live animal’s behavior is a good indication of how that person would react to a living, breathing being. For example, if someone was unable to successfully care for a tamagotchi, chances are good any goldfish owned by them would not fare well. Likewise, if a girl was unable to handle caring for a life-like doll then she probably is not ready for actual motherhood. Hence, inanimate objects can interact with people and teach us how we would handle real life scenarios involving actual living things, be they human or animal.
So, can digital pets help people learn compassion and responsibility? Perhaps, in some cases, they can. For example, robotic dogs like the Bandai Smartpet are beloved by many young owners and anyone who has ever witnessed a child playing with one of these technical creations would be hard pressed to deny the legitimate affection in the little human’s actions. Thus, even if the Smartpet is simply programed to behave as if it “loves” its owner, the loving affection felt by the human being—especially young children, who freely confess to feeling love toward their playthings—is very real.
However, what virtual pets really do is teach human beings about themselves and how they form both positive emotional attachments and negative resentments. The feelings we have toward inanimate virtual systems that are created to resemble a living being serves as a reflection for how our personalities respond to real-life scenarios in relation to other people and creatures that might either depend on us, please us, or annoy us. Virtual pets do not bond with human beings but they are programed to instill certain levels of bonding behavior in the human psyche. Hence, owning a virtual pet can indeed help someone feel compassion and learn responsibility, which would ultimately make them a wonderful owner to a flesh and blood creature.
If your child is thinking about getting a dog, or a cat, or even a hermit crab, it might be best to first see how they respond to a tamagotchi or a Bandai Smartpet which will not actually be injured if the owner fails to provide proper care. This is yet another way that technology can help people learn and grow emotionally.