Become friends with your Toyota

Companies are looking for ways to leverage social networking sites for their own purposes. Now Toyota announces plans to create their own social networking service where you will be able to become friends with your car:

Toyota is setting up a social networking service with the help of a U.S. Internet company and Microsoft so drivers can interact with their cars in a way that’s similar to posting on Facebook or Twitter.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. and Salesforce.com, based in San Francisco, announced their alliance Monday to launch “Toyota Friend,” a private social network for Toyota owners…

With the popularity of social networking, cars and their makers should become part of that online interaction, [Toyota’s president] said.

“I hope cars can become friends with their users, and customers will see Toyota as a friend,” he said.

There is the whole purpose of this: strengthen the relationship between customer and product. I wonder if Toyota owners would really flock to this concept. They might be loyal customers because of the value and reliability of Toyotas but is there a fervent fan culture that would want to be part of a social network?

But there is an interesting phrase in this article: “cars can become friends with their users.” Perhaps it was not intended this way but it implies that cars have agency. The article talks about how newer cars, such as plug-in electric vehicles, need more monitoring and so users will be open to getting more information from their cars. But in the end, these cars are just cars, machines that help people get around. We are a ways from having cars that could hold human-like conversations with their owners (see this recent piece on progress in tackling the Turing Test).

While some commentators have lamented the difference between off-line and online friends, perhaps this is the next controversial step forward: friendships with products. Right now, you can be a “fan” on Facebook but a friendship implies a closer and more interactive relationship.

The Turing Test and what makes us human

Each year, the Loebner Prize competition takes place where judges are asked to interact through computer terminals with humans and computer programs. The judges then vote on whether they were talking with a human or a computer in this version of the Turing Test.

Two things struck me in this article:

1. The writer frames this issue of “mind vs. machine” as a more fundamental question about what separates humans from other animals:

Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have been puzzling over the essential definition of human uniqueness since the beginning of recorded history. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that every psychologist must, at some point in his or her career, write a version of what he calls “The Sentence.” Specifically, The Sentence reads like this:

The human being is the only animal that ______.The story of humans’ sense of self is, you might say, the story of failed, debunked versions of The Sentence. Except now it’s not just the animals that we’re worried about.

We once thought humans were unique for using language, but this seems less certain each year; we once thought humans were unique for using tools, but this claim also erodes with ongoing animal-behavior research; we once thought humans were unique for being able to do mathematics, and now we can barely imagine being able to do what our calculators can.

If this is the case, then the Turing Test, or Ken Jenning’s battle with a computer on Jeopardy!, become the final battleground as humans lose what we thought made us distinct: thinking or reasoning. But this quick definition of human selfhood seems to leave out a very important component: the human search for meaning. Sociologists, like Peter Berger, have talked about this for decades in order to help explain the prevalence of religion. Berger argued that religions arise because people have enduring questions about why the world is the way it is and what their place is in it. Do other animals pose such existential questions? Is spirituality or religiosity what might really separate humans from other animals?

2. As the writer explains his strategy for showing the judges that he is human, he recounts past conversations computer programs have had with humans. Several of these were quite interesting. One program from the 1960s, Eliza, took a more therapeutic approach to dealing with humans:

User: Men are all alike.

Eliza: In what way?

User: They’re always bugging us about something or other.

Eliza: Can you think of a specific example?

User: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

Eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here.

User: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

Eliza: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.

User: It’s true. I am unhappy.

Eliza: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?

User: I need some help, that much seems certain.

Eliza: What would it mean to you if you got some help?

User: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.

Eliza: Tell me more about your family.

This program was apparently quite effective in fooling people and some even went off to have therapeutic conversations with this program. Another program acted belligerent at random points and threw some people off.

It sounds like these computer programs will continue to get more sophisticated.