Tuesday, 28 February 2006

Computers are like people. Very stupid people.

BMW had a spot of bother when they unveiled their spoken-language guidance system.

Unfortunately, a large number of drivers had a strong negative reaction to this technological marvel and demanded a product recall. The problem? The navigation system had a female voice. German drivers felt uncomfortable with, and untrusting of, a "female" giving directions! BMW acquiesced and switched to a "male" synthetic voice.

People react to computers as if they were people. I remember a study where people were asked to test a computer, and then evaluate the computer's performance. One group was asked to click in the evaluation form on the same computer they tested, while another was asked to use a different computer for the evaluation. And people in the first group gave higher scores! Perhaps they didn't want to insult the computer to its face.

There's a principle here. We live in a world of speaking people. People respond to us when we talk to them. It's natural. But our gift for interpretation sometimes makes us use it where it doesn't apply -- as with non-humans. You talk to the dog, and he looks at you so earnestly that it's hard to believe he didn't understand a word. You talk to empty space, and it's hard to believe that the empty space isn't giving you some kind of response. Easy to interpret any unusual circumstance as an answer. Especially when you're exercising faith.


  1. How do you know that dogs cant understand what we're saying? Just because they don't speak as we do, and just because we have lost all ability to communicate in any way other than by the written or spoken word, that does not mean that unknowingly we are not communicating with our pets some other way.

    How do pet dogs know when their owner is on the way home, even if he comes home at a different time every night? One argument that has been put forth is that its because, when he's on the way home, he's thinking of going home, walking into the house, taking off his jacket, relaxing, seeing his dog waiting for him. These thoughts are picked up by his dog, who is telepathically communicative. It makes sense if you think about it.

    I'm not an authority on this. Neither am I saying that this is the way it is and that's that. I don't know how correct this is, but Im not going to close all options and say that the written or spoken word is the only form of communication we are capable of. We only use a fraction of our brain after all!

  2. Hi, zena.

    Your questions were so good that I wanted to respond to them at some length!

    How do you know that dogs cant understand what we're saying?

    Ah, yes, the Problem of Other Minds is a puzzler, isn't it? The dog's mind is a bit of a black box. And so for these kinds of questions, a good rule is 'Assume less rather than more.'

    Of course, dogs can be taught to recognise certain words and phrases and respond to them. So can birds. But this does not constitute language use in the human sense. True language use involves a knowledge of the parts of language -- words and syntax.

    These thoughts are picked up by his dog, who is telepathically communicative. It makes sense if you think about it.

    Dogs have telepathy? I guess on the face of it, it could look that way. But how could we test it?

    I suggest the following test: find a good-natured and intelligent dog that can obey a range of commands. Tell the dog (with your voice) to do the various things it knows how to do.

    Then try giving the dog the commands again, but this time telepathically using only your mind. Better still if the dog can't see you. I bet the dog's performance will drop off rapidly. (I haven't done the test, mind you.)

    So if the dog isn't telepathic, how does it know when the owner's about to come home? There's a simpler explanation than telepathy: it can hear the car's engine getting closer, or it can see the headlights. Or it can hear footsteps. Dogs have good hearing and smell.

    I'd like to suggest some reading on this:
    The 'Clever Hans' effect Link 1 | Link 2
    Anthropomorphism Link

    Oh, and another thing: we use all of our brains.


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