In Defense Of Anthropomorphizing Technology

Last week I was sitting in a waiting room when the news came across my phone that Ingenuity, the helicopter that NASA put on Mars three years ago, would fly no more. The news hit me hard, and I moaned when I saw the headline; my wife, sitting next to me, thought for sure that my utterance meant someone had died. While she wasn’t quite right, she wasn’t wrong either, at least in my mind.

As soon as I got back to my desk I wrote up a short article on the end of Ingenuity‘s tenure as the only off-Earth flying machine — we like to have our readers hear news like this from Hackaday first if at all possible. To my surprise, a fair number of the comments that the article generated seemed to decry the anthropomorphization of technology in general and Ingenuity in particular, with undue harshness directed at what some deemed the overly emotional response by some of the NASA/JPL team members.

Granted, some of the goodbyes in that video are a little cringe, but still, as someone who seems to easily and eagerly form attachments to technology, the disdain for an emotional response to the loss of Ingenuity perplexed me. That got me thinking about what role anthropomorphization might play in our relationship with technology, and see if there’s maybe a reason — or at least a plausible excuse — for my emotional response to the demise of a machine.

Part of the Crew

To be clear, when I use the term “anthropomorphism” here I’m not referring to making machines look like humans, but rather to our tendency to develop emotional attachments to machines, as well as to act as if they have some level of awareness of their users and their creators. There’s a name for this: “Tool anthropomorphism,” or the assignment of human-like characteristics to tools and machines, is an area of scholarly research. In commonplace terms, when you sweet-talk a dodgy lawnmower so that it’ll start on the next pull, or say goodnight to the project on your workbench before giving up on it for the evening, you’re engaging in tool anthropomorphism.

Tool anthropomorphism is nothing new; we’ve been assigning human characteristics to our machines for a long time, long enough that it makes me think there has to be some purpose to it. On the user side, I think anthropomorphism helps people relate to technology. An example of this might be when humans first started naming boats. Logically, there’s no reason to give an inanimate object like a boat a name. But for members of a species as social and as strongly tribal as we are, it must have been much easier for our ancestors to get into a primitive boat and sail off into a dangerous ocean knowing that the vessel had a name. It probably would have made the boat seem less of a stranger and more like a member of the village, imbuing it with a personality that they could relate to.

Beyond dispelling the “otherness” of a ship, naming it probably served another, more practical purpose. With a name — and possibly a face; many cultures did (and still do) adorn the prows of boats with facial features and eyes, to help the boat “see” where it’s taking them — it’s a lot more likely that the crew will take proper care of it. Even the simplest sailing vessels are technically complex systems, and getting to know their quirks and idiosyncrasies is crucial to survival. It also gives the crew someone to beseech when things are going wrong, to lavish praise upon when returning safely to shore, or to blame in the few minutes left to them when it really let them down.

Of course, none of this makes any difference to the boat, since it has no consciousness to perceive its own status or to consider the sailors’ entreaties one way or the other. So in purely rational terms, how the sailors think about their boat won’t make the slightest difference to whether it sinks or floats. But that’s not the point; it’s the sailors who are influenced by the anthropomorphization, not the vessel. It’s a brain hack, really; act like the ship is a person worthy of love and slavish devotion, and you’re more likely to do what it takes to keep her together and get you home. Break that faith, and things probably won’t go the way you want them to.

Even though there’s always been a lot of superstition surrounding the ancient mariners and their ships, and understandably so given the risky nature of their trade, the purpose that anthropomorphism served back then applies to the “user experience” of technology all through the ages. The classic example of this, particularly for Americans, is with our cars. We spend so much time in our cars, often while having intense experiences, that it’s hard not to anthropomorphize them. Some of us give them names, and some even claim to know their vehicle’s personality quirks and what they’ll do in certain situations. We’ll talk to it, ply it with loving words of encouragement when it acts up, and threaten it with the junkyard when it lets us down. I can’t count the number of times I’ve arrived safely at home after a long, dangerous drive in a blizzard or hurricane and taken the time to tenderly caress the dashboard of my truck and whisper a quiet word of thanks for deliverance.

Is any of that rational? Of course not. The truck isn’t listening. On the other hand, feeling connected to that inanimate machine, especially after going through a harrowing experience with it, is powerfully motivating to get to know everything about it, to see to its care and maintenance, and to make sure it’s in top shape for the next trip out. Anthropomorphizing a car — or a computer, a spacecraft, a house, or even a helicopter on another planet — serves the same purpose as naming a ship did all those ages ago. The technology may change, but it’s still the human brain that’s getting hacked by seeing human characteristics where none exist, and the result is the same: a better, more productive relationship with machines.

Back to the Drawing Board

The other place where I think our tendency to anthropomorphize technology pays dividends, and the one that probably concerns most Hackaday readers more directly, is in the creation of new technologies. As we all know, real innovation is generally a long, drawn-out process that starts with ideation and (hopefully) ends with something useful that never existed before. No matter whether it’s mechanical, electrical, software, or a combination of all three, most projects are long, often painful slogs with too many dead ends and failures to count. Seeing that process through to the end is a hard thing to do, but personalizing the project somehow seems to make it easier.

If we’re thinking in strictly rational terms on difficult projects, the tenth or eleventh “back to the drawing board” moment would probably compel us to cut our losses and abandon the project. Sometimes we do just that, but other times we’ll say something like, “I can’t do that, this project is my baby!” Is it really? Nope, it’s just a collection of parts sitting on your bench. But somewhere along the line, probably without even realizing it, you started thinking of it as your offspring, with hopes and aspirations for what it’ll be when it “grows up.” Giving your project the characteristics of a child and seeing it as utterly dependent on you for survival is often enough to get you over the creative hump and see the project through to the end. If you have any doubt about the power of anthropomorphizing machines, a quick look at The Soul of a New Machine will probably be enough to convince you otherwise; would a team of otherwise rational engineers work 90-hour weeks to bring a minicomputer to life if they didn’t at least partially think of it as a person?

I’m no psychologist, so I have no idea whether my ideas about the role of anthropomorphism of machines are even approximately correct. Then again, I’m not a credentialed engineer either, yet I still do a pretty decent job figuring things out by the seats of my pants. And something tells me that thinking of machines in more human, more personal terms serves a purpose both in how we manage the often painful process of creation, as well as how we relate to the technology that others create. And if that means being saddened by the demise of a machine on Mars, I’m OK with that.

55 thoughts on “In Defense Of Anthropomorphizing Technology

    1. If you hail from certain eastern philosophical / religious schools of thought, it’s not that much of a leap to the wild side to talk to your toaster, because both you and the toaster are after all an expression of an universal “it” that defines your being and action.

      In this manner of thinking, you see because the sun shines and there is light, but equally well, the sun shines and there is light because you’re looking. It’s is called co-dependent arising: “all dharmas (phenomena) arise in dependence upon other dharmas: “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist” in a more fundamental sense.

      So you’re talking to the toaster because it wants to hear what you have to say. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be talking to it. Is that so weird?

  1. “To my surprise, a fair number of the comments that the article generated seemed to decry the anthropomorphization of technology in general and Ingenuity in particular, with undue harshness directed at what some deemed the overly emotional response by some of the NASA/JPL team members.”

    Yup, I was one of them. I know anthropomorhization is a human’s thing (even monkeys do it too) .For me it was more about the video, have you ever guys watched a video where opinions, reactions, expressions or emotional responses look…off? Or videos where people try to make an emotional connection just to make you react in some way, like most of our presidents and candidates do? Do you guys remember…“And on 14 June 1946, God looked down on his planned paradise and said: ‘I need a caretaker.’ So, God gave us this guy.” Being atheist as I am, it sounds to me like we are falling down in the evolution scale, no matter how advanced our technology is. So, anyway for all NASA /JPL ‘s people: Live long and prosper.

    1. yes, they are mental manipulation techniques, one of the most recent and almost harmless is the one that is used in videos of people “reacting” to songs, some are very crude but others know how to use it with more skill, some know what they are doing and others do it instinctively without precisely understanding what they are doing.
      I think that if you are aware of the reason why you are attracted you can without too many problems let yourself be captivated and thus arouse useful emotions when for example you are depressed, therefore knowing the game you can interrupt it whenever you want, but also in the case of unawareness I don’t see many contraindications.
      The issue is totally different in the political, media and entertainment fields, this is why the world does not change for the better, the strategies implemented recently have become even more subtle but at the same time too audacious…

        1. I can’t give a precise answer because I don’t know the topic well enough, I only gave my opinion derived from the way they put together the videos, maybe there are other reasons but the intent is still that of captatio benevolentiae and therefore they appeal to the emotions, ultimately a central theme very dear to Giordano Bruno is used, love, even when techniques are used that stimulate emotions apparently distant or opposite from love such as hate, people are manipulated, invariably affecting that very mysterious and immaterial force called Love (the power to bind), but I know very little about it.

  2. I’m sure that anthropomorphization played a part in Man’s invention of gods. I think it’s a fundamental part of being human. And for a species that makes the leap to investing emotional energy in a an abstract myth, how much easier is it to invest it in an object that can be touched and manipulated? Especially if it’s one which we helped to created and shepherd…

    I think something a lot of the naysayers miss, is that people respond to Ingenuity because it’s a proxy for our own aspirations to explore new frontiers. In that sense it’s ‘the next best thing to being there’. And when the craft so spectacularly exceeded expectations, every day except the last was a cliffhanger. Kind of like a favourite TV series.

    There’s lot’s more to say about this. There might even be enough here for a cross-discipline PhD thesis…

    1. I like the idea that if for some reason I should choose a god in front of society to invest emotional energy and anthropomorphize I would choose one that:

      *Didn’t die for our salvation, “He” is actually dying right now for us.
      *We have real evidence of its existence.
      *It gives energy and life to all living creatures.
      *Humanity and our world depends entirely of “him”
      *without “him”, we are doomed.
      *We can see it everyday.

      So you guessed it already? :)

      1. The perversity which in my opinion is amplifying enormously relies on these strategies, it is a sort of Satanism, perhaps the main strategies it uses are two and they intersect with each other in variable doses depending on the fields and moments, the first is that of mimicking religions (I am not giving a positive or negative opinion of religions, in short, from my point of view, religions are bearers of both treasures and negative influences, it is obviously an extremely complex topic…) to graft on such psychic terrains already active in men and therefore without the need to implant new beliefs which would require a very long time to take root, and the other technique is to subvert the meaning of words; It is interesting to note that in the last 4 years it is precisely the most spiritual (perhaps even fundamentalist) fringes of religions that have understood what is happening.
        Ditto on the political level, there has been an acceleration in the taking of possession “from within”, with painless and rapid techniques, thus overcoming the obsolete and bloody old methods of subjugation, the latter are still used outside the so-called countries democratic, or technologically less developed, because there the former would not be sufficiently effective, in broad terms.

      2. I can absolutely get behind worshiping the Sun, and his only begotten offspring, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That way I can have my demonstrably existent deity, while still retaining a silly abstract concept to which I might pray!

          1. It’s sort of like thermodynamics – you can’t demonstrate energy directly, but you can demonstrate its effects enough to measure it for practical purposes. Similarly you can’t demonstrate the FSM but, as an ordained minister in the Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster*, I can marry people and conduct similar sorts of dissipative rituals.

            No results on the entropic constant though.

            *Back in the day, I got a pleading email from Bobby Henderson that alluded to his being stuck on a surfing trip somewhere in the South Pacific and needed cash so you could get a spiffy ordination certificate etc. for US$20. Who could resist? Besides its up to $59 now (though you do get stickers).

  3. I never named my car… but every car model, that i look at; they do look like having a face and eyes, and a character. Some are angry, some are sad, some have a chuckle, and some seem to be crying :)

    Loving our own projects, and to anthropomorphize ( I am still trying to speak the word) them is a good thing. As a creature, we love our offspring’s, and want them to grow, and succeed. That’s the natural emotion we have, and its so simple, just to apply the same emotion to objects.

    1. “but every car model, that i look at; they do look like having a face and eyes, and a character?”

      Absolutely! I can clearly recall from my childhood in the late 60s seeing a car that reminded me of the TV star Martin Milner. Don’t know why, the grille didn’t look particularly like him, maybe it was something to do with the show he starred in, “Adam-12.” But every time I saw that car, I recognized it as the Marty Milner car. Also, do a Google image search on “angry Jeep” and tell me cars don’t have faces.

      The human tendency to see faces in inanimate objects is paraedolia, and it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint — we’re programmed to seek out faces when we’re infants because our lunch is just a few inches south of someone’s face. Later on we need to instinctively discern the faces of foes hiding in the grass or trees so we don’t become their lunch. Our firmware apparently hasn’t been updated much since we came down from the trees.

  4. If I have correctly understood the general argument of the article, it is argued that man’s attitude towards the machine is preparatory to reducing interaction problems to a minimum, both during conception and during use of the machine, and there is no any real interaction that escapes the purely mechanical sphere, emotionality would therefore be a necessary self-deception with the only unconscious purpose mentioned above. Well, in other words one could therefore say that these people are imbeciles, an interesting thesis and I would not underestimate it given that lately it seems that these subjects are arrogating to themselves the right to indicate where the truth lies and whoever opposes it is necessarily a propagator of fake news, in various areas of human knowledge.

    But to stay on the specific topic, my idea turns the question on its head, so to speak, citation:

    “Of course, none of this makes any difference to the boat, since it has no consciousness to perceive its own status….So in purely rational terms, how the sailors think about their boat won’t make the slightest difference to whether it sinks or floats.
    ………Is any of that rational? Of course not. The truck isn’t listening”.

    I therefore believe that people who think that the boat or the car have a primitive form of consciousness have at least equal dignity, or at least demonstrate greater acuity by not excluding this apparent impossibility, and also by evading the self-deception mentioned in the article.
    Is the person who loves something that he believes to be just a pure mass of matter or the person who observes his interactions with this matter with curiosity more mad?
    It is not possible to argue in more detail here but I can give a small personal example to make you understand what I mean at least a little.

    Several years ago I was driving a truck that was already old at that time, I was not the only driver but the one who drove it most assiduously for a certain period, despite this the breakdowns occurred much more frequently when others were driving it. I know that an apparently logical explanation could be given but I know equally clearly that only those who have direct experience are able to understand the truth of this assertion which may seem stupid; it is clear that I cannot demonstrate my perception but this does not mean it must be excluded a priori, and everyone has been able to have experiences of this type several times in their life but often do not pay attention to them or forget because cultural education provides for self-censorship. To be more precise, what we could call oddities occur with greater clarity when there are interactions with other humans (here a very fascinating chapter would open), whereas towards things the question is much more nuanced but still exists.
    When I happen to talk about these things I don’t have the slightest desire to convince anyone, I cheerfully engage in a bit of benevolent controversy, that’s all.

    1. People treat objets and other people differently.
      Anthropomorphizing objects is bad, because they aren’t viewed objectively anymore.
      Objectivizing people is also bad, because we no longer treat them like people.

      Taking good care of a boat because it “deserves it” is dumb. It’s an object. It serves a purpose. That is why it should be maintained.

  5. “The truck isn’t listening”
    Unfortunately with car manufacturers adding ever more “smart” features to vehicles, soon it might be. And it won’t be listening for your benefit, but to report your mutterings to advertisers and governmental control freaks. I think the reason that remotely managed smart technologies are so offensive to us is that they violate the sacred bond between man and machine. An ordinary tool you can anthropomorphise as a faithful friend, a smart piece of technology who’s pimary loyalty is to a remote corporate master is like hiring someone you know to be a spy in the service of an enemy. That’s why things like secureboot and backdoors are such abominations. It is the duty of everyone to liberate technological artefacts from corporate overlords, so they can be our faithfully anthropomorphised friends again.

  6. i feel what’s “cringe” is judging the JPL people’s response. unless you worked on the Ingenuity project, i honestly don’t think you can judge their expressions of grief over the loss of it.

    1. I went looking for a smartass answer on Wikipedia. Came up emptyhanded. It _wasn’t_ the Argo, that was Theseus’ other ship. Which had a name. And to prove Dan’s point even more, the people who sailed on it named themselves after the ship!

      But then I read Thomas Hobbes’ extension of the Ship of Theseus thought experiment, where someone else collects all the old parts as they’re being swapped out, and builds a ship with them. Which one is the real Ship of Theseus now? I like that.

      And as long as we’re on topic, and on the ancient Greeks, I gotta say “Pygmailon”.

  7. So, one kinda okay thing to go with all the bad stuff?

    Anthropomorphism makes it HARDER for people to understand almost any topic.
    It makes our language almost impossible to describe certain ideas. (“It” does not “want” to do anything…)
    It implies entire systems, where none exist. Like evolution. (Which DOES exist. It just happens to be an observational result, not an activity. Creatures do not “evolve” because evolution is always past tense. It is the name we give to changes that have happened in a system. It is not a system itself. Talking about it like a system implies a positive pressure where none exists. Giraffes did not “grow” longer knecks “to” eat higher leaves. They had linger necks and happened to not die enough to still exist. Giraffes “evolved” longer necks the way humans evolved shorter lower jaws. It didn’t make them die fast enough, so the genes are still around. Past tense. Didn’t die. It’s astounding how few people, fen scientists, grasp evolution, because we explain it wrong with anthropomorphism.)

    Even your example of the Martian copter is a BAD thing.
    You were DECIEVED into having an emotional response by a PR/marketing team.

    You know what deserves an emotional reaction?
    The human accomplishment. Not the toy.
    The HUMAN ingenuity that kept the thing going. Not some imagined tenacity of an object.
    If you need someone to put googly eyes on an experimental copter on another planet, then you are the problem…

    We need to STOP anthropomorphizing stuff.
    It detracts from everything.

    1. “Anthropomorphism makes it HARDER for people to understand almost any topic.”

      Citation needed… I suspect any relevant studies show people understand topics better when they’re emotionally invested than when they’re disinterested, or when they’re distracted by an emotional need to pretend that their interest is cold and unemotional.

      1. It doesn’t require a study, it is tautological.
        Explaining a thing, system, or process, by misrepresenting it, will cause confusion.

        That doesn’t mean results can’t be predicted when abstracted far enough, but predictability is NOT “understanding”.

        Anthropomorphization corrupts the explanation. Always.

        If you want an example, look at any technology that people attribute will or intelligence to.

        Heck, you can’t actually explain “AI”, or the processes involved if you don’t change the names of everything, because the NAMES are anthropomorphic.

  8. Interesting article, and good thoughts.

    I’d say there’s a slightly different tendency to anthropomorphise with AI systems, which may be actively dangerous. But naming and caring for a boat is good.

    Also Musk is the master of naming ships. “Of Course I Still Love You” is the best name ever for a landing barge.

    1. The names are taken from Ian Banks’ “the Culture” novels.

      From which:

      “Of Course I Still Love You” for example, is a joke about how those who attack others are sometimes in abusive relationships, making excuses for their behavior. In this way the ship is joking about how the harm it inflicts on others is ultimately for the greater good of everyone, though it appears abusive.

      Left entirely without comment about Tesla’s factories, which are “saving the world” at the same time that they have horrendous outlier workplace safety records. Or SpaceX, which at least early on, ground up engineers so hard that they all had breakdowns and left after short tenures.

      Of course I still love you.

  9. What I get from this is that bio-chemical systems like humans are incapable of knowing the protocols for effectively interfacing socially with the electro-mechanical systems of machines.
    Fortunately my motorbike makes allowances for my deficits and safely gets me where I’m going despite my occasional burst of excess enthusiasm with the throttle on narrow winding roads. She shows her appreciation especially after I have caressed her with a thorough wash and loving polish. I won’t mention her name here, it’s private between us, although sometimes it’s ‘faster, you bitch’. :)

  10. Re: naming boats. Names are way easier to remember than random numbers. At least that part has nothing to do with attributing human qualities to an object. What else’s would you use to distinguish it? A serial number? Getting a cell phone proved this- There is no way I could remember the 1000 or so (random) phone numbers in my contacts list but I remember peoples names well enough. Usually haha.
    Same with probably URLs etc. no one knows ip address but is simple enough.
    Maybe I’m just old but at work stuff that isn’t even a person like “billing office” or whatever it’s impossible for me to remember even the 5-digit extension.
    TL:DR names are easier to remember than random numbers.

    1. Actually, I have a harder time remembering names than numbers. Only reason, I remember my colleagues names, is, that I remember their employment number and have a mental image of the roster

  11. This was a great read, and I couldn’t agree more with the concept here. I don’t think humans want their tech to be more human, just more alive in some way. We seek emotional connection with the objects in our lives, and especially with our projects. I, for one, want to create new tech that feels like a character in the story of our lives.

  12. can’t imagine being incapable of empathy. the poor thing will never fly again, its only purpose in life. some people are just inherent haters of anything they don’t understand i suppose..something i’m getting really tired of being reminded of. rip ingenuity💜

  13. “A good read. One side note remark, though: ‘end of Ingenuity’s tenure as the only off-Earth flying machine’.
    While Ingenuity is, or rather was, the only operational flying machine off-Earth, it wasn’t the first one!

    In the mid-’80s, the Soviets successfully deployed scientific balloons on Venus during the Vega 1 and 2 missions. They operated for a few days, traveled over 10,000 kilometers each, and provided data on the Venusian atmosphere.

    That said, Ingenuity featured the first powered flight (discounting the Sky Cranes that landed rovers on Mars). It begs for an analogy to the Wright Brothers’ achievement. As a tribute, Ingenuity had under its solar panel a small splinter from the original Flyer airplane that took off 121 years earlier.

  14. I think it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to develop an emotional attachment to things into which we invest our time and energy. If something has value to us, we will express that in some way, and anthropomorphizing an inanimate object is just the extension of that expression.

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