Jottings on science, religion, technology, pop culture and faith from the Antipodes.


Computer companions: Are they possible?

I went to hear Prof Maggie Boden speak tonight on Computer companions: Are they possible?. The main thrust of the talk was that computer systems (robotic and simulations) are being created to serve three main types of roles:

  1. Physical interaction – such as robots that are used in caregiving or domestic roles: Robo-Monk and Robot nurse will care for Japan’s lonely old people
  2. Conversationalists – providing some sort of interactive conversation as part of doing tasks
  3. Confidants – related to the above, but able to engage in conversation in some way based upon building up a knowledge of a person over time: such as being able to listen to, analyze and draw upon the stories that have been told it the system previously.

Boden argued that these sort of systems are in various stages of development now (particularly for commercial deployment), and that they raise a whole range of questions that go beyond the purely technical ones of whether or not functional ‘sociable’ robots/system are possible.

  1. Could a ‘computer companion’ really do x (where x might be gossip, feel sympathy, express humour)?
  2. Could a ‘computer companion’ really be made to appear to do x?
  3. Would a human being believe that a ‘computer companion’ could do x?
  4. Would we want (3) to happen?
  5. How might (3) affect human-human relationships?

These are similar questions to some that have come up in my own research so they weren’t a surprise to me, but given the discussion after the talk they were new to some there.

Update: Radio New Zealand’s Sunday Morning programme had an interview with Margaret Boden at the weekend which covered some of this material. You can listen for a while here (MP3).

Related material – a quick selection of papers, essays and books by Boden that I’ve found interesting:

Boden, Margaret A. 1985. Wonder and Understanding. Zygon 20 (4):391-400.
______. 1987.
Artificial intelligence and natural man. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books.
______, ed. 1990.
The philosophy of artificial intelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
______. 1995. Artificial intelligence and human dignity. In
Nature’s Imagination: The frontiers of scientific vision, edited by J. Cornwell. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
______. 1998. Creativity and Artificial Intelligence.
Artificial Intelligence 103 (1-2):347-356.
______. 2005. Ethical Issues of AI and Biotechnology. In
Creative Creatures: Values and Ethical Issues in Theology, Science and Technology, edited by U. Görman, W. B. Drees and H. Meisinger. London: T & T Clark.

Margaret Boden is also speaking on What is creativity? : Wednesday 20 February 5.30pm, at the Gus Fisher Gallery as part of her time at the University of Auckland.

See also: Exploring Our Matrix: Robots in the News


  1. Thanks for sharing this! I’ve just been reading Noreen L. Herzfeld’s book In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), which touches on some of the same topics.

  2. I’ve updated the post to include a link to a radio interview with Boden from the weekend. Might be of interest.

    I read Herzfeld’s book when it first came out – I quite liked bits of it, though I tended not to identify with her interpretation of the imago Dei. It’s interesting to see how she’s shifted somewhat since the book by picking up more functional models of that theological motif. For example,

    Herzfeld, Noreen. 2002. Creating in our own image: artificial intelligence and the image of God. Zygon 37 (2):303-316.
    ———. 2005. Co-creator or co-creator? The problem with artificial intelligence. In Creative Creatures: Values and Ethical Issues in Theology, Science and Technology, edited by U. Görman, W. B. Drees and H. Meisinger. London: T & T Clark.
    ———. 2005. Terminator or Super Mario: Human/Computer Hybrids, Actual and Virtual. Dialog 44 (4):347-353.
    ———. 2007. A new member of the family? The continuum of being, artificial intelligence, and the image of God. Theology and Science 5 (3):235-247.

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