Of Minds and Machines

Assigning animated adventures as homework is one of the unsung pleasures of teaching.

The animated adventure in this case is Wall-E, and it is fully appropriate to our discussion of computer consciousness. Its inclusion in this directed study was inspired by last week’s “reading”, the RadioLab episode “Talking to Machines“, which featured an informal study in which people were asked to hold a Barbie, a Furby [link will make noise], and a gerbil upside down. The general unwillingness to up-end a Furby for very long led to a discussion of how we perceive consciousness in others – how the fuzziness and assorted chirps give the toy a sense of life that Barbie just doesn’t have. And when you want to discuss the ways we can make computers seem alive, as if they have their own personalities, Wall-E is the place to go:

The initial voiceover identifies characteristics that Wall-E and his love interest, Eva, display throughout the movie – without anything that we would call language or more than a few basic “human” characteristics. It might not be as tear-inducing as Up or Toy Story 3, but the animators succeed in making you care about a few (animated) machines; the story wouldn’t really be a success unless viewers bought into the idea that these character robots have consciousness. So why not real robots somewhere down the line?

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