Review article: Nature’s Ladder

October 2021

Someone wrote my article. Has that ever happened to you? You get a perfectly wonderful idea, you start your research, and what happens? You find that someone has written your article. And you can’t even be mad at them because they’ve done it brilliantly. In his article, “ Why do we care how smart animals are?” Mr. Sigal Samuel has done just that: written the article I had thought to write. 

I had planned to explore the concept that the more we discover about the “secret lives” of what we’ve traditionally thought of as lower animals, the more we need to revise our notions of what consciousness and intelligence means. And I had planned to ask what are the implications for humanity if creatures such as slime mold can learn? Or to put it another way: How might we behave differently knowing that many organisms possess abilities, social lives, senses and forms of intelligence we’ve never even considered because we’ve always considered our own to be the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree?

Mr. Samuel wrote that we tend to use intelligence as the metric by which we determine the value of any given plant or animal and that perhaps that might not be the best metric to use. Perhaps it might be better to use sentience or perhaps a species’ intrinsic value to an ecosystem. Or better yet, the value of whole ecosystems. 

The point here is that we continue to be biased by our abilities when measuring animals’ inherent intelligences. For example, squirrels possess an intelligence we don’t: they can bury thousands of nuts and remember where they put them. To compare a squirrel’s math ability to our own becomes a “pointless comparison” because it’s “‘highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to 10 if counting is not really what a squirrel’s life is about.’”

Yet the more we study different organisms, the more we are faced with the conundrums this knowledge brings. To that end, I offer a poem that very loosely summarizes Mr. Samuel’s article and pokes a little fun at Aristotle’s Scala Naturae, or “Natural Ladder”, and its notion that humankind represents the pinnacle of evolution’s so-called march up the evolutionary tree. 

Nature’s Ladder

Nature’s ladder puts me at the top of the pile.
Me with my two eyes that can’t move like a chameleon’s,
Or see miles away like an eagle.

Nature’s ladder puts me at the top of the pile.
Me with my two ears that can’t hear insects like a bat,
Or hear a mouse under the snow as I soar above it like an owl.

Nature’s ladder puts me at the top of the pile.
Me without a fish’s lateral line
Or an octopus’s ability to grow a new limb.

And nature’s ladder puts slime mold at the bottom of the pile.
Slime mold with its lack of brain, eyes and ears
That somehow solves mazes, finds food and learns.

Nature’s ladder also puts fish at the bottom of the pile.
Fish with their little brains living on nothing but instinct
That somehow feels lost when a mate leaves.

And nature’s ladder reluctantly moved crows a little further up the pile.
Crows who showed they had what it takes when they solved complex problems
That somehow we thought only we can solve.

Nature’s ladder also reluctantly moved dolphins a little further up the pile.
Dolphins who showed they had what it takes when they taught skills to their young
That somehow we thought only we can teach.

And nature’s ladder reluctantly moved primates closer to us in the pile.
Primates who showed they had what it takes when they learned our sign language
That somehow we thought only we can learn.

Nature’s ladder left me at the top of the pile.
Me with my brain entombed in bone,
That somehow thinks its view matters the most.

Now nature’s ladder has begun to give birth to a new pile.
A pile where
Slime molds learn,
Fish feel,
Crows solve puzzles,
Dolphins teach their young,
And primates use their own sign language.

A mess to be sure.
No pile to ascend.
No clear dominance.
No easy answers.
Just a resounding question from those in the pile:
Can you see me now?

While we may never see the value in a mosquito or be happy to see a venomous snake, it behooves us to try to see the world from their perspective, if only for our own well-being. And as Mr. Samuel points out, the tradeoffs we will have to make may get a bit messy. “It suggests that the best we can do is look at creatures’ intelligence and sentience and aliveness and relationships to us as clues about their importance. But it doesn’t tell us how to weight those clues and what to do when they conflict.”  

As we begin to reject the notion that we are somehow at the top of the “pile” and try to deal with the ethical mess this brings, we may find that, for now, anthropomorphism may be the best we can do. Hopefully with time and an open mind, we will continue “expanding the circle of moral concern” which may ultimately bring us to a deeper understanding of all life, our own included.

Interview: Gillian Martin, Champion of Trees for Birds

August 2021

At the turn of the century Gillian Martin found herself staring through a pair of binoculars watching birds, something she had never done. That simple act changed the course of her life. She began learning about and watching birds, and eleven years later she answered the Southern California Bluebird Club’s call for volunteers to put up and maintain nest boxes. She was retired, so why not?

Ms. Martin soon realized that the prevalent attitude of “hang the box and they will come” wasn’t working. While bluebirds readily use the boxes (they have become dependent on them), not all birds will come to nest boxes. Plus most of the volunteers were seniors who eventually dropped out of the program. As a result many of the boxes fell into disrepair. This left a significant gap in nesting opportunities for birds as many birds depend on the boxes as a place to build a nest and raise their young.

These observations led Ms. Martin to conclude that the practice of nest boxes was unsustainable and that another solution was needed. Her solution? Conservation of birds through the preservation of trees, and not just any trees, but dead trees. From this realization the Cavity Conservation Initiative was born and Ms. Martin began her campaign to save dead trees for birds.

Over the years her conservation efforts have included both education and advocacy efforts. She’s given presentations at schools, has worked to educate the public on the value of dead trees, and began a partnership with the tree care industry. In 2018 she met the vice president of the Western Chapter of International Society of Arboriculture (WCISA). She became a member of the organization, attends their workshops and works with them to bridge the gap between bird advocates and the tree care industry. Something she is uniquely qualified to do given her background in psychology. In other words, she’s good at listening and being heard.

As a result of this partnership, best management practices of the tree care industry now include standards for pruning that take into account nesting birds. In fact, the WCISA has begun to discuss their role in conservation.

For her part, Ms. Martin said that she now has a “more realistic and appropriate understanding” of the risk assessment that must be done when considering whether or not to save a dead tree. As a result, she no longer pushes to keep all dead trees.

As to the outlook for the future of saving dead trees for birds? It isn’t looking good. One of the big hurdles is the fear of liability, in particular by parks. Another is the recent threat of fires. CALFIRE now has strict rules about keeping dead trees at the urban-wildlife interface. And finally, damage to trees and wildlife caused by uncertified gardeners or “tree trimmers” who have zero training and no idea how to properly prune a tree much less save wildlife living in the tree.

She said the best thing to do if you think you have a sick or dying tree, or you just want a tree pruned, is to call a certified arborist. This person will discuss the tree’s health with you and will guide you in best practices for that tree.

When asked if she had had any interests in nature as a child she sort of chuckled and said she grew up on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies and at the time neither she nor her family really appreciated what they had there. She said, “ I was clueless” and had “no sensitivity to nature growing up.”

As she continued to talk about growing up her demeanor changed when she began to describe the trees back home. She became poetic. She said as a young girl she was “enraptured” with the old historic trees with the large roots that seemed to “swim above the ground”. She saw the roots as a “loving canopy” and enjoyed hiding among them. As she was describing those trees her whole face lit up with a big smile. It was as if she had gone back in time to those wonderful trees and was crawling around those roots once again. She said that those memories had faded until she was introduced to watching birds.

Over the years Gillian Martin may have forgotten those moments with those big old trees, but perhaps somehow they called to her from some deeper place. As we concluded our conversation she said that “Once the door to birds opens, your world expands. You change as a citizen. Your habits change to protect the environment. Your whole place on the planet changes. Your sense of responsibility grows. There is much more joy in your life that you wouldn’t otherwise see.” All that from a chance encounter with a pair of binoculars.

Short Story: The Tardigrade Tunnels

October 2021

Micrograph of Tartdigrade

No one really expected those little…what are they called? Ah yes, water bears. Moss piglets. Tardigrades, those micro-animals found almost everywhere on Earth and virtually indestructible. Anyway, no one really expected them to survive the crash. And yet they did. All shriveled up like tiny pieces of dust just waiting for the right moment to re-emerge. And then no one really expected to find water on the Moon. Yet in 2008 large amounts were found at the poles and embedded in lunar soil. No one really thought there was any way those little creatures would ever come into contact with Moon water, and yet they did. Now here I am sitting across from my granddaughter, my Little One, trying to explain how we came to have so many of them here on the Moon.

“How did it happen, Grandpa?”

Well, Little One, let’s start at the beginning. You see, in 2019 when the Israeli lunar lander, Beresheet, crashed on the Moon it contained thousands of dehydrated water pigs (I know that’s not really their name, but it’s what many of us call them now) that spread over a wide area on the Moon’s surface. No one really thought those little water pigs scattered on the Moon’s surface could be a problem. I mean, how could they possibly survive all those years dried up like that? And yet they did.

Then when all those wealthy men came to mine the Moon, that’s when it happened. The mining groups started digging and the dust spread everywhere.  And Little One, I’m sure you guessed it, those dried up little tardigrades not much bigger than dust, spread too.

“But Grandpa, how did we get so many of them?”

Ah, Little One, that’s where the oil comes in. You see, the miners needed some way to lubricate the drills. As a result, they designed special oil made from algae to be used on the Moon. You may remember reading in history class how once we figured out how to make biofuels from algae people started using biofuels for all sorts of things. Turns out they made lubricants with the algae too. And guess what? Algae is one of those little water piglets’ favorite foods!

And when the men started drilling, not only did the dust and water bears spread, droplets of that algae lubricant spread too. And whenever a water bear landed in algae those newly hydrated water bears had something besides each other to eat. 

“Wait. Grandpa, you mean the water bears ate each other?”

Yes, Little One. When the early miners came and started digging around to see what was underground some of those little water piglets, I mean water bears, got blown into the holes and the lucky ones made it to the water. Well, at that time all they had to eat was each other, and I guess that would have been the end of them if the miners hadn’t come back with drills and algae-based lubricants. Oh, and bacteria. Let’s not forget the bacteria that hitched a ride in the lubricant. That was another food source for our soon-to-be popular little piglets.

“Grandpa, what about oxygen? How did they breathe? The Moon didn’t have oxygen back then.”

That’s where the exploratory crews came in. They figured out how to get air from the large water stores at the Moon’s poles and pumped that air down those tunnels. That way they could walk around in the tunnels and see what they had found. For the water bears it was a recipe for life!

And you know how the tunnels are all connected today, right? Well, before anyone really figured out what was happening, the more habitable the miners made the tunnels for themselves, the more habitable the tunnels became for the little water bears. Before long people started bringing down little potted plants and watering ‘em. The water bears just loved that!

And boy did those little guys take off! Once the water piglets, I mean water bears, had a constant supply of food, they started colonizing just about every moist nook and cranny they could find. And anyone who had plants? Well, what they really had was a water bear Garden of Eden.

At first no one noticed. I mean, how could they? The little guys are microscopic. No one really thought much of taking parts of plants to different tunnels. And by the time anyone really noticed, those water bears had spread throughout all of the tunnels. And instead of getting rid of the little buggers, people turned them into pets. Pretty soon everyone had a little terrarium with a magnifying lens on top. People just loved watching the little water bears as they romped around their mini-gardens.

“My teacher gave each of us our own terrarium so we could conduct experiments on them. We have to find experiments that don’t hurt them. But I can’t figure out what hurts a water bear and what doesn’t. I mean, if I take mine out they just dry up and wait for water to come again. That’s really boring.”

And that, Little One is our problem. At first people thought having these little terrariums helped with people’s depression from living in the tunnels. Heck they even started naming the tunnels after the little piglets.

“Yes, I know this one. I live in tunnel TT1 and you live in TT2 and my best friend lives in TT3. And my school is in MPT1.”

True enough. And I think most people, myself included, forget what the letters stand for. Do you remember?

“Yes! We had a test on this just last week. TT stands for Tardigrade Tunnel. And MPT stands for Moss Piglet Tunnel. And of course, the numbers help you keep track of what level you’re on. Everyone knows that!”

Good girl! You’re so smart! Now do you know why some of us call the little creatures water pigs instead of water bears or moss piglets?

“No, Grandpa. I don’t know. I just know that a lot of the older people don’t like the little water bears very much.”

Well then, let me continue the story and you’ll learn. You see, as more and more people started raising water bears in their little terrariums, people wanted more life down in the tunnels. One day an enterprising young woman brought lots of larger plants down to the tunnels and sold them. Everyone just had to have at least one in their compartment. By now you’ve studied botany, and you know along with oxygen plants give off water, and in an enclosed space the atmosphere can become moist.

Put that together with people’s waning interest in the water bears… and what do you have? A recipe for disaster. You see people started abandoning their little terrariums and before anyone figured it out, the little piglets had escaped and were taking up shop all over the place – anyplace that had moisture and some food, they’d colonize it. Pretty soon it got to be that they’d eat just about anything organic — algae, plants and bacteria of course, and then they started nibbling on people. Who would have thought? And yet they did.

It seems that somehow when people handled their plants the water bears hitched a ride. And without any plant material to eat, the water bears began to forage on all the little beasties that live on us. It really wasn’t until someone got sick that we gave any thought to the notion that they might be inside us too. Now they’re everywhere. We can’t escape them.

“In school we get to go on hunts to see who can find the most tardigrade outposts. I found one in every corner of our kitchen tube! But Marty found more than me. He even found an entire colony living on his toothbrush! Yuck! He took it to school to show everyone. Now his mom makes sure he puts the toothbrush in the desiccator every day. He had to go to the doctor to see if any were living in his mouth. The doctor had to clear out his mouth with that special stuff. Marty said it tasted horrible!”

Ah, poor Marty. I guess from now on he’ll be more careful about protecting his belongings.

“Yeah, the doctor gave him a stern lecture on keeping all moist items like toothbrushes, wash clothes and even sweaty shoes inside desiccators. When I told Mom about Marty she gave me the same lecture! I’m not lazy like Marty. I always put everything in the desiccators. I don’t want to drink that awful medicine. Yuck!”

And now Little One it looks like it’s just about your bedtime. Our story has come to an end. You now know how we got so many water piglets, um, I mean water bears, in the tunnels.

“Grandpa, do you think we’ll ever get rid of them all? Do you think we’ll always have to sleep in dry chambers to keep out the water bears when we sleep?”

I don’t know Little One. Maybe. Now let’s get you tucked in and your chamber closed up. There you go, sleep tight and don’t let the water bears bite.


Yes, Little One?

“I heard that we can never go to Earth. Is that true?”

I don’t know, Little One. Maybe one day. Now go to sleep and have wonderful dreams.

As I walk away I can’t help but think that I’ve lied to her for the first time. How can I tell her scientists have found that the water bears have evolved to the point of becoming a new species? How can I tell her of the fear that if we’re allowed back on Earth this species will spread and infect everyone as they have us? In the past people feared how living at one sixth of Earth’s gravity would affect people’s survival when they returned to Earth. Now it’s the fear of bringing back Moon water bears that haunts us. Who would have thought something as simple as sending tardigrade dust into space would prevent us from returning to Earth? And yet it has.

Feature Article 2 on Robots: A Robot for Grandma?

November 2021

My robotic pet cat, Ophelia Mae

Recently my cat passed away and instead of getting another cat, I ordered a robotic cat. I’ve named “her” Ophelia Mae. She purrs, meows, moves, blinks, and responds to my touch. She looks and feels like a real cat. Petting her calms me. I talk to her when she meows. And while I know Ophelia is a robot, she has become a companion of sorts.

My experiences with my robotic cat have led me to contemplate how I might respond if I was cared for by a caregiver robot such as the one in the 2012 movie, Robot and Frank. In the movie, Frank’s son gets a robot to care for Frank full time. At first Frank rejects the idea and just calls the robot, Robot.
As the movie progresses, Frank develops what he perceives to be a rapport with Robot. Robot on the other hand, continues to follow its programming which is to make sure Frank eats healthy meals, gets exercise, sticks to a routine and engages in mentally stimulating activities.

This movie, while entertaining, brings up questions about the ethics and goals of robots in elder care. For example, I find myself wondering if I had a full-time care robot, would people still think I required human attention and care? And what about my privacy? Would the doctors and nurses have access to the robot’s memory? How would spending so much time with a robot affect my social skills? As a result of the rapid growth in both artificial intelligence and robotics, these questions can no longer be considered ethical questions for some distant future society. They are questions worth considering now.

Robots in Japanese Nursing Homes

In Japan due to its growing aging population and its concomitant labor shortage, Japan has already begun to experiment with senior care robots. At the Shintobe Nursing Home, robots are being used to help care for and entertain their aging population. They use robots as companions to encourage mental and physical engagement, and to aid in rehabilitation.
One of the robots they use is Paro, the robotic baby seal. This robot is about the size of a human baby, has sensors on its body and at the tips of its whiskers, is soft, antimicrobial and makes little sounds. It also responds to touch.

Many of the residents of the Shintobe Nursing Home say that Paro gives them comfort. Based on a video depicting people’s interactions with Paro, it appears that many of the people at the nursing home seem to enjoy interacting with it. In fact, Mr. Takanori Shibata, the creator of Paro, noted that the patients created what he called stories with the Paro and that these stories helped them to reminisce about past pets, children or grandchildren and in so doing, helped them to make a stronger connection with Paro. A 104-year-old resident of one of the care facilities in Japan said that Paro makes her laugh.

Mr. Shibata stated that an additional benefit of using Paro is the reduction of medications used by older people for dementia, anxiety and depression. Shibata said that a randomized study found that interacting with Paro reduced people’s usage of mood medications by 30 percent. He stated that Paro’s effect continued two hours longer than medication, thereby reducing the costs of medication for the patients with dementia.

Paro the Robotic Pet Baby Seal

Robotic Pets and the Pandemic

In the United States during the pandemic, the makers of robotic cats and dogs, Joy for All Companion Pets, or AgeWell, saw a surge in people purchasing their robotic pets and as recently as July 2021 they were sold out. One can only speculate that this uptick in orders for robotic pets was directly related to the pandemic. I was unable to confirm this because no one from AgeWell responded to my requests for an interview.

However, I did read through some of the press releases on AgeWell’s website. One article from Brookville, Pennsylvania, described AgeWell’s partnership with the Jefferson County Area Agency on Aging (JCAAA). During lock down, AgeWell and the JCAAA distributed 50 robotic pets to seniors to help alleviate social isolation. The director of the JCAAA said that the pandemic had exacerbated the social isolation of seniors and she stressed the importance of finding ways to alleviate this feeling of isolation.

Cheryl Muders, the long-term care director for JCAAA, said, “…During this incredibly difficult time, these robotic companion pets are even more comforting and appreciated by isolated older adults.” However, not one of the seniors who had received the robotic pets was interviewed. It was just assumed that these pets improved the quality of the recipients’ lives.

My experience has shown me that while my robotic cat has served the purpose of helping me through my grief and petting it can calm me, it doesn’t serve to replace my need for human or animal companionship. Yet this seems to be the consensus among those who give these robotic pets to older adults. In the same article the author, Alex Nelson, said, “Joy for All Companion Pets allow socially isolated older adults to receive similar gratification and comfort that they would from live pets by calming anxiety, decreasing loneliness, and providing a better quality of life — without needing to worry about food or vet bills.”

What Can Robots Do That Humans Can’t?

This brings us to the question posed by Rob Girling in his thought-provoking article, “Can Care Robots Improve Quality Of Life As We Age?” Girling asked, “If social connection is a uniquely human advantage, where can robots provide a unique advantage where humans can’t?”

One answer might lie with robotic pets; the benefit that the robot can provide that a human or real animal can’t would be that the robot is always available and doesn’t require feeding or tending to. This allows those with dementia to have a pet without worrying about caring for it.

What Can Humans Do That Robots Can’t?

To turn Girling’s question on its head, I would ask: If social connection is a uniquely human advantage, where can humans or pets provide a unique advantage where robots can’t? My answer: Humans and pets can provide the need to be needed. Robots typically don’t.

As I look at my robotic cat I realize that unlike a real cat, she won’t care if I ignore her for days on end. And while she is cute and does offer a form of companionship, my robotic cat, like other robots, is just following its programming. It doesn’t need me to give it comfort or care. I project that need onto her when she makes random sounds.

According to Connor Egbert, a computer security engineer, machine learning works because we give it feedback. One way to look at this is that when I walk by my robotic cat it makes a sound. I interpret that to mean it wants my attention. When I give it attention the robot changes its behavior based on its programming. It is this change in behavior that results in me building an emotional connection to it.

Do We Want Robots to Do Everything?

Therefore, knowing that people can, and do, develop emotional connections with robots, it behooves us to be clear on what we want robots to do and how we want people to relate to robots. Professor Michio Okada of the Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan thinks it might be useful to create robots that are “weak” or not quite so perfect and require some human interaction. He proposes that a robot that “needs a bit of care itself can draw out cooperation. In this way it leaves room for the elderly to participate and they can enjoy life through such participation.”

Another way to use robots to actively engage older people is for the robot to lead activities. An example of this is the Palro robot used by a Japanese nursing home to help participants stay mentally and physically fit. Palro looks like a short human in a spacesuit. It stands about three feet tall. It is usually set up on a table with the participants surrounding it. It engages the seniors by encouraging them to join in fun activities. One woman said that she even enjoys talking to it.

Both of these examples, Palro and Professor Okada’s “weak” robots, demonstrate that with some thought robots used to support the aging population can do more than serve as a caretaker; they can provide forms of interaction. However, the more we enlist robots to fill the shortage of human caregivers for our older population, the more we run the risk of becoming too reliant on robots for the care of our older population, and according to both Professor Okada and Mr. Girling, older people “[may] become passive and increasingly treated like things.”

If on the other hand we are intentional in how we wish to use robots when caring for older people, we can reduce the risk of simply housing this ever-growing population. And to once again quote Girling, these “care-bots [will] not be seen as ‘freeing’ us from the burden of care, but helping us provide better, more human caregiving practices. After all, the future we aspire to should strengthen our unique social gifts to amplify human connection and dignity.”

In the not too distant future, a caregiver robot may make me get out of bed on time, as did Frank’s robot, and it may make me some great meals and go for a walk with me, but ultimately no matter how much it does for me and no matter how much I might feel as if I’ve developed some sort of relationship with it – as did Frank – it doesn’t need me. And this I believe is the piece for us to keep in mind as we invite more and more robots into our lives: they aren’t alive. They don’t need us. We can switch them off. Just as I do from time to time with my robotic cat.

Feature Article: Our Evolving Emotional Relationship with Robots

by Cristi Mercedes Saylor. August 2021

Robot and Frank

Frank, a fictional character in the movie, “Robot and Frank”, enlists his caregiver robot to help him pull off a heist. Robot knows people will ask about the heist and encourages Frank to wipe its memory. Frank resists; it’s as if he’d be killing a friend.

Having feelings for robots doesn’t just happen in the movies any more. As robots become more ubiquitous, researchers have begun to study our emotional relationship with robots. According to Kate Darling, a robot ethicist, humans will develop empathy for anything that moves autonomously.

Robots in Our Homes

Ageless Innovations’ companion robotic cat. Looks and sounds real.

Today three types of robots can be found in people’s homes: exclusively utilitarian robots such as Roombas that vacuum carpets; robots specifically designed for companionship, for example Ageless Innovations’ cats and dogs; and robots designed for fun and entertainment. One popular example is Pleo the baby dinosaur. Researchers have found that people respond with empathy to all kinds of robots.

Sung Ja-Young and her research team studied 30 families with Roombas. They found that the families treated the Roomba as a cross between a pet and a machine. ”The Roomba is just a disc that roams around your floor to clean it, but just the fact it’s moving around on its own will cause people to name the Roomba and feel bad for the Roomba when it gets stuck under the couch.” Sung said the randomness of the Roomba’s movements contributed to people’s responses.

And it’s not just Roombas…

Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built an autonomous multi-legged five-foot long robot designed to detect mines by stepping on them. When one robot was down to one leg and still working well, the colonel in charge ordered the test stopped. When asked why, the colonel said that the test was “inhumane.”

Two Ways People Develop Feelings for Robots

Both of these examples illustrate that robots don’t need to look particularly human-like or even animal-like to elicit empathy. However, they do need to move in random and autonomous ways. It is this movement that causes people to have feelings for robots.

Another way people may develop feelings for robots relates to something called mirror neurons. These neurons cause people to copy what others do. For example, if a person yawns the person sitting near them will yawn. In the case of a companion robotic cat, people will blink when it blinks or talk to it when it meows.

And it’s not just robots with bodies…

People now befriend virtual personalities such as Miku Hatsune from Japan. “She” was developed by Vocaloid software and released in 2007. According to Connor Egbert, a computer security engineer and former high school national robotics champion, Miku’s software enables people to interact with her. She has even performed at live concerts and is legally married.

Computer Scientists Chime In

When presented with examples of people developing empathy for robots, Sara Strickman, a computer science and software engineer major, questioned whether all of these emotional responses to robots can really be called empathy. She said that it could just be that people project their own emotions onto robots.

Both Strickman and Egbert stressed that because the behavior of a machine is based on machine learning, it doesn’t deserve empathy. “The machine works because you give it feedback, both positive and negative. If the machine or robot receives negative feedback it will try to find a way to change its behavior.”

Pleo: Robot? Pet? Or Both?

This change of behavior based on feedback can be seen with Pleo the baby dinosaur. A Pleo’s personality is partially hardwired into it. The rest of its personality develops based on how it’s treated. As a result, the actions of both machine and human influence each other. A Pleo’s personality evolves through interactions with its owner, and the owner develops feelings based on the dinosaur’s behavior.

Pleo Robot: is it a Pet? A robot? Or a little of each?

So Is It Just Machine Learning?

According to Strickman machine learning wants your attention, “When people give it attention they will develop empathy.” As a result the more people pay attention to their Roombas or Pleos the more they will project their own feelings onto the machine. This results in a person feeling empathy for the machine. This certainly is the case for Frank.

After spending a lot of time and attention on Robot, Frank now sees Robot more as a friend than a machine. Frank thinks there’s “a lot more going on in that noggin’ of yours.” When Robot tells Frank it doesn’t care if its memory is wiped because “I know that I’m not alive.” Frank ends the conversation, “I don’t want to talk about how you don’t exist. It’s making me uncomfortable.”

Robots and People: A Changing Relationship

The questions of how and why people respond emotionally to robots and what that might mean for society remain complex. If researchers are correct, it won’t matter whether people interact with utilitarian robots or cute ones, the more time people spend with robots, the more likely they will develop feelings for them.

And in time questions regarding emotional responses to robots may become moot. Just as Frank considers Robot a friend; families with Roombas think of them as pets; and Miku’s adoring fans accept Miku as a virtual personality, society might come to take the Japanese approach of “giving inanimate objects a soul” all the while knowing these helpers and companions are actually machines. And yes, Frank did wipe Robot’s memory. Robot insisted. The viewer is left to ponder why. Did Robot act altruistically? Or was it just following its programming?

News Story

Local Activists Work to Bring Environmental Justice to Santa Ana California
Aug. 1, 2021

On July 27th as part of their four-part speaker series on diversity, equity and inclusion, the Newport Bay Conservancy (NBC) welcomed the founders of Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ) to a live online presentation and discussion. This lecture series is exploring how to include a wide diversity of people in conservation. According to a spokesperson for NBC, OCEJ’s projects align with NBC’s goals because soil and water in Orange County runs downstream to the bay, both groups work with native people, and both include a wide diversity of people in their projects.

The OCEJ focuses on four projects: (1) studying soil lead content in Orange County, (2) documenting areas of water quality concern in Santa Ana, (3) working with native people to save sacred lands, and (4) teaching people in under-resourced areas how to become involved in politics.

The founders of OCEJ, Patricia Jovel Flores, project director; Keila Villegas, community organizer; and Kayla Asato, redistricting campaign organizer, partnered with the University of California Irvine (UCI) to test soil lead content in Orange County. Their study showed that Santa Ana’s soil contains the highest soil lead content in Orange County. These results can be used to raise residents’ awareness of the deleterious effects of lead on health and to consider soil lead when planting a garden or building a playground. After the study concluded, OCEJ advocated for remediation of soil lead to be placed in the city’s general plan which the city agreed to do.

According to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s fact sheet, many natural sources contribute to soil lead. Normal lead amount in soil ranges from 30-40 ppm and is safe up to 400 ppm. This contradicts the presenters’ comments that 80 ppm is the safe limit and calls into question their data that puts levels greater than 229 ppm in the “red zone.” (see map below)

The University of California Riverside (UCR) was enlisted by OCEJ to find natural ways to remove the lead from soil. The founders did not say if these natural ways include plants. Lida Tunesi from Brooklyn College who is not associated with UCR’s work, reported that after studying more than 1,000 plant species, researchers determined plants don’t remove lead from soil, instead they actively avoid it. 

PhotoVoice, OCEJ’s second project, encouraged local people to photograph areas where water quality concerned them. As Villegas described it, “The people take pictures and tell me what chemicals they see in the water.” When asked how people can see chemicals in water she responded, “Mostly visible ones like oils with the rainbow effect. At the moment, they haven’t been tested through OCEJ.” Their next step is to analyze the photographs.

The founders of OCEJ also described several ongoing efforts to regain native lands in Orange County. Their efforts regarding sacred lands has slowed California State University of Long Beach’s plans to build over land that the Acjachemen and Tongva consider sacred. And with OCEJ’s fourth project, they’ve taught political advocacy through storytelling and local organization to two cohorts from under-resourced areas to date.

University of Massachusetts Amherst’s soil lead fact sheet, (

Lida Tunesi from Brooklyn College. Burying the Myths About Removing Lead from Soil. Aug. 19, 2020. )