There is a little white light on the corner of your MacBook that rhythmically fades and glows. It undulates like a rising chest, or a slow, flowing, electronic heart beat. Your MacBook will only do this once you’ve put it to sleep, and it will only stop if your battery dies.
Whereas Microsoft Word will ask if you want to ‘add to dictionary’ a word it doesn’t recognise, Apple’s TextEdit will ask if you want it to learn the spelling. And, similarly, Safari doesn’t ‘log’ passwords, but instead asks if we want it to remember, and not the password, but you.
MacBooks breath, beat, sleep, die, learn and remember. The concept of a machine ‘dying’ from a neglected red battery bar is nothing new, and certainly not pioneered by Apple. However, Apple have succeeded in exploiting our tendency to project human qualities onto machines. In an attempt to reject Cartesian dualism, Gilbert Ryle coined the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’, arguing that just as there is no phantom mind in a machine, there needn’t be an immaterial spirit in our brains either. And yet, 70 years later, we’re creating anthropomorphic machines that imitate life, as if Jonathan Ive is trying to put the ghost back in the machine.
Apple’s design strategies, in both their soft- and hard- ware, play upon a natural human tendency to see human characteristics in inanimate objects. However, this is not an uphill battle. We have an instinctive tendency to identify human characteristics in inanimate objects. Often this is a result of a phenomenon called ‘pareidolia’, whereby people identify patterns such as faces in random images. There are famous instances of this, from the Shroud of Turin, a piece of cloth that apparently bears the image of Christ, to ‘the man in the moon’. In fact, the impression of a face in the moon has existed for so long that Dante mused upon it in The Divine Comedy:
But tell, I pray thee, whence the gloomy spots
Upon this body, which below on earth
Give rise to talk of Cain in fabling quaint?”[1. Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, Canto II, line 51]
We see a human face exiled on a distant moon, and condemn it to be Cain’s, the moon a planetary East of Eden. Thus an entire mythology sprouts from dark blotches on a barren, dust-covered rock. In what Buzz Aldrin described as ‘magnificent desolation’, we can’t help but see ourselves.
We see faces everywhere, a visual echo of our desperately social nature. This faculty is so finely tuned that we still outclass computers in facial recognition. Because of this, Amazon have created a marketplace called ‘Amazon Mechanical Turk’ (MTurk), otherwise known as ‘artificial artificial intelligence’. This software appears to produce results generated by computers, but it actually outsources them to human beings. Due to the fact that computers are still relatively useless at picking out a face, especially when it comes to emotion or gender, humans are forced to identify faces for them. This is why computers still struggle to beat humans at poker, and why you still have to tag your own Facebook photos.
This ability is so inherent to our perception that recent research suggests that it has had a role in manipulating the evolution of our canine companions. Our irises are surrounded by white, a feature that effectively demonstrates to others the direction we are looking in. This adaptation was fundamental to pre-linguistic communication, and is still an important aspect of our emotional expression today. And there is evidence to suggest that during their domestication, dogs developed this feature in lieu with humans. This is because it improved their chances of support from humans, as we could identify with a dog whose facial features were more apparent to us.[2. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/science/dogs-and-humans-speculation-and-science.html] Here, in a very literal way, we anthropomorphized our environment.
Though this tendency to see faces is an evolutionary skill, it can often manifest itself in monumentally irrational ways. A good example of this is in houses, where two top windows and a bottom door almost inevitably evokes the illusory sense of a face. And, often, this can be so strong that we cannot resist a sense of not only a face, but an expression – and even a specific identity.
Photographer Vladimir Nikolic toys with the subject of one our most prevalent pareidolic tendencies: cars. In his photographic series ‘Autoportraits’, Nikolic plays with our predisposition to find faces all around us, lightly parodying our emotional sympathy with heaps of metal. His photos highlight the absurdity of our desire to identify with even vaguely facial images, to the extent that we may well imbue headlights and a license plate with some sort of emotional mood or expression.
But this is no laughing matter for car manufacturers. The University of Vienna is providing research that is seeking to understand how we perceive emotion in cars, and which consumers prefer. That emotion, their research suggests, is anger. Consequently, downwardly tilted headlights (frowning eyes) and wider air grilles (bared teeth) prove more desirable. Their research is in the process of moving to Ethiopia, where research is set to explore whether this is solely a western phenomenon. In any case, as research leader Truls Thornstensen remarks, car design is a billion dollar industry, and pareidolia may hold a key.[3. http://www.livescience.com/5118-people-love-angry-faced-cars.html]
These various strands of pareidolia show us our desire to imbue the inanimate world with emotional life. And just as this has changed dogs, it is changing designers. Apple is in the process of incarnating the ghost of their machines into the pan-ethnically named ‘Siri’. This doesn’t just perform automated tasks: it provides a sense of identity and life, just like the subtle, undulating white light on a MacBook.
In his science fiction, Isaac Asimov foresaw a future of robots, and yet the real androids of the future are our Android phones. The only difference between Asimov’s future and our present is that there’s no need for them to walk around when they can fit in our pockets and on our desktops. And whereas car manufacturers are seeking to develop facially humanoid cars, designers like Apple’s Jonathan Ive are beginning to more subtly create products in our own image and likeness. Soon we will be asking not what to design, but who.