We have a dog. She’s not a particularly bright or obedient dog. She is, however, our daughter’s most prized possession. (Am I allowed to call a dog a possession?) And she sheds. A lot. So much white hair floats around our home that my husband was ready to find a new home for this rescued pooch.
Instead, we got a Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner.
Within an hour of its arrival, the kids decided to name our new dog-hair-eating robot. They picked the name Steve. Why Steve? First, it’s funny. And the kids know that it’s funny. It’s funny because it’s a human name, not a robot name. Plus, we have fun saying things like, “Why is Steve trapped in the bathroom?” and “Tell Steve to go back home.”
The more interesting answer as to why we named it Steve is that when humans bring other beings into our family circle, we must give them names. As a people, we did this first with animals. In the early years of the industrial revolution, when robots entered our factories, we named them. In the beginning, the chosen names were not particularly kind. Over time though, the names became more complementary. Leaders in the Tesla factory have specifically noted that the names make the robots more acceptable to the (other) workers. You may know a car lovers who has named her car. Zipcar makes a habit of it, although their names are not usually human names.
In 2007, Kidd and Braezeal conducted a study showing that people enjoyed interacting with a robot that had only minimal human characteristics. [An entire field of study, including an annual conference, is dedicated to Human Robot Interaction.] Most participants in the study named their robots and referred to them using a gendered pronoun (he or she) in conversation. I’ve personally seen this dynamic at work in a war zone. My friends who deployed to fix the EOD robots always named their robots. They even maintained a Wall of Honor for those robots who gave their motherboards for their country.
The EOD robots didn’t have humanoid characteristics though. Neither does Steve. They were decidedly non-human. Wheels for feet. Cameras for eyes. Radio for ears. Nothing that remotely looks like a face.
And yet, we name them. They become friends, they become family, and they work alongside us. We give them names because they are a part of our lives.
[As an aside, the above picture is my brother playing with our toy robot during the early 1970s. I don’t remember its name. Yet I do remember the robot had the most distinctive smell. The odd combination of smells can best be described as burnt rubber and gears that filled the room whenever we turned the robot on.]