Their barks are worse than their bytes

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Silas is a friendly-looking golden dog with floppy ears and a pointy tail. If you hold out your hand, Silas will come up to you wagging his tail and sit down, just like a real dog. He will even bring you a ball and try to get you to play.

But Silas is not real. He is made from computer-generated shapes and looks a little as though he escaped from a Disney cartoon. Silas is one of a small but growing number of computer programs that can mimic the behavior of friends, pets, and other objects of human affection. Among them are Julia, with whom you can have long, if strange, conversations; Phink, an unpredictable dolphinlike creature; and Neuro-Baby, a digital infant who can analyze and react appropriately to your moods.

Building 'relationships' with these digital creatures is, of course, rather an unusual process. With Silas, for example, you have to stand in front of a video camera looking at a projection screen on which you see a picture of yourself, your room, and Silas, added in by the computer program. Of course, these are all virtual friends; robot friends with 'real' bodies are still a long way off. For the more immediate future, the scientists and artists who are creating digital companions want to explore what is needed to make these computer-generated objects more friendly and engaging to humans. Research is proving that we are often surprisingly willing to read intelligence and intention into the creations of computer programs.

'The research goal behind Silas is to understand how you can build an autonomous creature, like a dog, that seems to do the right thing over time,' says Bruce Blumberg, Silas' creator and a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. People readily respond to Silas as though he were real, creating explanations for his behavior the way they would with a real dog. 'From the user's perspective,' says Blumberg, 'there's a sentient, intentional being there.'

The willingness of humans to see complex emotions in animals is well known to ethologists. 'People often ascribe feelings to a real dog that are over and above what they really would admit, if pushed, they believe the dog really feels,' says June McNicholas, a research fellow at the University of Warwick in England who has worked extensively on the bond between humans and animals. 'If you've had a bad day at work,' she says, 'your dog may seem to respond to this. And you'll say to yourself, 'He knows I had a bad day at work.' But you know that the dog doesn't know you had a bad day at work. All he knows is that you are moving and acting differently than you usually do. And you know this.'

Reacting to Silas involves similar rationalizations. For instance, Silas is interested in moving objects that are close to him. If you reach out to pat him, your hand will be both moving and close, and Silas will watch it. Silas doesn't have any way of knowing whether you're touching him or not, but because he's watching your hand so intentlyit 'appears' that he is responding to being patted. Users tend to explain his response in those terms ('I'm patting him, and he likes it') and the explanation has predictive value (whenever the user tries to pat the dog, the response is the same) and so, in the user's mind, Silas likes to be patted.

People find Silas fascinating partly because they enjoy trying to explain what he is doing. 'If a creature behaves exactly the same every time,' says Blumberg, 'that's not very interesting. It turns into a robot. On the other hand, if it's totally unpredictable, then it seems random, and it's hard for the user to develop an explanation with predictive value. The optimal place is where there's just enough surprise that you're constantly coming up with new explanations that make sense. I think that this is why we like having 'real' pets.'

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