In Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life, Peter Kahn shows how technological nature is better than no nature but not as good as actual nature. In Chapter 9 of Technological Nature, Kahn zeroes in on the first part of his proposition (technological nature is better than no nature) when he investigates whether robotic dogs can help socialize children with autism.
Autism is a developmental disorder that is characterized by three main symptoms: impaired social interaction, impaired communication, and the presence of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. Kahn states, “In the field of human-robot interaction (HRI), there have been some pioneering studies that suggest that robots might be able to ameliorate one or more of these symptoms.” Many such studies found that AIBO, a robotic dog used to conduct this cutting-edge research, was “more attractive [to children] than a nonrobotic toy.”
How can a robotic animal aid in the social development of a child with autism? Kahn suggests two ways that this might happen: the child interacts with the robot as a social other and robots may provide children with autism with a “pivotal medium for enhanced communication with adults.”
Kahn leaves us with this parting thought: “The key idea, then, is this: AIBO is patterned simply, but it is not simply repetitive. In this sense, AIBO is similar to much of nature. People can be captivated, for example, by looking at ocean waves breaking onto the shore, or experiencing a waterfall, because the water’s pattern is always changing, simple but compelling. I suspect that these engaging 'repetitive' properties of nature—and of technological nature if it is designed right—have not yet been fully recognized as a means to benefit children with autism.”
Check out Technological Nature for more information about Kahn’s study of how robotic dogs might aid children with autism—and, on a completely unrelated but still fun note, here’s a video of an “AIBO on the Typewriter.”