I've been wanting to post about Seth for awhile now. We spend the most time together these days and so I get to still see a lot of what is going on in his head. Thomas is older now and is a little more closed off, though he inherited the LaBarge forthrightness and is often more than happy to tell me the things swirling around his nine-year-old thoughts. Not surprisingly, most of them revolve around Star Wars, video games, and unfathomable social connections/conflicts at school. I think if I were still a nine-year-old it would all make sense to me, but my adult brain has lost the ability to keep track of the constantly shifting loyalties and interests. Though, when I was nine, I had two best friends and that was pretty much it, so maybe not. Thomas is far more social than I ever was (I have actually been studying his interactions, hoping to learn something about getting to know new people, something he is good at and I'm not. Turns out, being friendly and open with them immediately is the key. Who knew?) and so moves through many groups and many friends and always has something to say about each one of them.
But that's a post for a different day. I've been studying Sethie, too, but for our similarities rather than our differences. He is in his own head a lot, like me, and likes to spend time absorbing different media. He can quickly memorize whole episodes of various shows and songs and will repeat them back verbatim--not as a party trick, but when he's by himself, like he's practicing for a play. I often wonder what this means to him: if he's just reliving something he enjoys, or if it's a deeper processing tool. Like I said, when I was a kid, social interaction flummoxed me quite a bit. I used to study how people in TV shows and characters in books resolved their issues and tried to apply those rules to how I interacted with people in the real world. Of course, any adult knows that TV shows and books aren't exactly true to life, and using them as a tool for figuring out actual people is a doomed enterprise, but I really craved that controlled environment. The conflicts there felt safe because they always led to resolution (usually by the end of the episode when everybody's hugging again) and no one seemed overly upset by argument, something I've always wanted to achieve (I'm a conflict avoider, but I wish I had more guts).
Seth is less shy than I was, but he does seem to study these things the way I used to. Again, it's hard to tell exactly what a five-year-old is thinking, but he's developed what I see as a parallel interest that makes me wonder if this strange world of free-thinking humans doesn't flummox him a bit, too. Sethie loves robots.
Of course, it's not unusual for a child to develop a studious interest in one thing: Thomas liked superheroes and still loves Star Wars. Lots of little boys like dinosaurs and cars, to the point of obsession. But Sethie's fascination with robots feels like something more to me. He seems to identify with them. Portal and Portal 2 are favorite video games in our house (in fact, we're obsessed. We even have a Portal themed bathroom in our house), but Sethie didn't like the games at first. Because of the turrets.
For Portal newbies, the turrets are egg-shaped, laser-sighting robots that fire on you, the main character, if you move into their sight range. Despite that, they enjoy intense popularity with the Portal crowd because they speak in very soothing, high-pitched voices (they are voiced by Ellen McLain, the woman behind GlaDos, the passive aggressive neurotic AI villain of Portal, who also enjoys a rabid fanbase) at odds with their attempts to kill you. When you come into sight, they proclaim in a bright voice, like they're greeting an old friend, "There you are!" and then of course start firing on you. When you move away, they ask plaintively, "Are you still there?"
The best way to disable the turrets is to knock them over. They will fire erratically for a time and then shut down. They have a way of making you feel bad for knocking them over, though--in the same soothing voice, they repeat, "I don't hate you" and the line that really got to Sethie, "No hard feelings."
He started to sob the first time he heard it. We were worried, of course, that as parents, we really shouldn't let him be watching a game where things fired on you and thought that was what was bothering him (we have much guilt for letting the kids watch/participate too much in our video game playing, but that's another post for a different day), but he didn't care about the character, he cared about the turret. He thought that instead of saying, "No hard feelings," the turret was saying, "No heart feelings", as in it didn't have feelings in its heart. He was devastated by this. Once we explained that the turret was just saying it didn't mind that we knocked it down, rather than being devoid of emotion, he calmed down again. I got a talking turret plushie for Christmas and Seth loves it. He sets it up in doorways and thinks it's hilarious to have it sight me and pretend to fire (should I be concerned?). He doesn't mind pushing it over, now, either, but when he does so, he repeats its words like he repeats the TV shows: "No hard feelings", "I don't hate you", "Shutting down", "Hey, hey, hey!"
He is fascinated by robots that move and think and potentially feel. One of his favorite movies is Astro Boy whose bright-eyed anime veneer covers for what many would consider a disturbing storyline: a government scientist loses his son, Toby, in a terrible accident. He decides to build an android replica of Toby and imbue it with the memories and mind of his late son. To protect the android from being destroyed the way Toby was, he of course fits it with defensive systems (guns and jet-pack feet, mostly. It makes sense in context, I suppose). For a long time, Seth really wanted to be Astro Boy. He replicated Astro Boy's "blue core" in playdoh (the energy source that, predictably, sits where his heart would be) and wore it on his chest for awhile. He watched the movie repeatedly, to the point where I had to coach him to start doing something else with his time. He would repeat Astro Boy's words to himself when he was alone.
After that he took up with Iron Man, who also has a core instead of a heart. He's been gunning for an Iron Man costume, which I will probably give into at Halloween time if he's still interested. More recently, my Game Informer magazine this month came with an article on an motion capture engine capability demo done for the GDC by Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream. The demo shows the journey of a female android, Kara, from inception through self-awareness, to eventual destruction once its creator realizes it has sentience and concern for its own welfare. The elfin-looking android captured Seth's attention immediately (luckily he couldn't read the article and didn't know they took her apart at the end). He wanted to get the game and couldn't understand when I explained it was a demo for other game developers. It wasn't available to us. I even found the magazine in his bed with him at night, clutched under his arm. "What is her name?" he kept asking me. "What does she do?" "Can I see her?" "Can I play her game?"
Now, being interested in Kara might just mean he's a normal boy with a healthy budding libido (I think he's that, too, but yet another post for another day!), but I don't think he would have cared so much about her if she wasn't an android. You can tell that he wants to know if she feels, if she wonders, if, like he thinks the turrets and Astro Boy are, she is more than her parts.
Maybe he just wants to know if he is more than his parts. In some rudimentary way, he is curious about sentience, about souls. Nate and I have been going through our books in order to pare down the ridiculous number we have. I held up a book with the title, "Soul of a New Machine", one of Nate's books, and asked if we were donating it. Seth shouted, "No!" and rushed to take it out of my hands. Now this isn't a children's book and it isn't something he's read or even noticed before. All he heard was the title. I asked him, "Are you planning to read that?" He said, "Yes!" in a sharp voice and sat down on the couch with it. Of course, its lack of pictures and extremely dense type meant he gave up after a few seconds and left it there, but he still won't let us toss it. Somewhere in that book is the soul of a new machine, and he can't bear the idea that we might give it away.
For his birthday, he wants the Lego Mindstorms robot-building kit. It's a little old for him, though he uses Scratch with me to create programs and games on our computer and has a rudimentary understanding of logic flow already, so I'm interested to see what he could do with Mindstorms. He's already declared that when he grows up, he is going to own a robot factory.
I admit, though, I worry what he will do with the little robots he builds. Will he want them to transcend their primitive programming and be disappointed when they don't? Will he want to associate more with them than with people? There is something very appealing about a creature you can program, but even more, for all the AIs gone rogue that we see in movies, there are the Datas of Star Trek and the Legions of Mass Effect who are sentient, but uncomplicated in the way humans are. They are forthright, loyal, and reliable. Unaffected by the vices that plague people, their child-like curiosity and humility coupled with their super-human abilities make them a very attractive ideal. It's easier to be a hero when you don't have base desires to war with--and when you have machine guns for hands, I suppose. :)
Maybe he's already wrestling with the question that has made mankind itchy for as long as we've been around: where is my mind? Do I have a soul? Is it merely in the firing synapses of my brain, coalesced in a whole that I perceive as thought and free will? Is it like the driver of a car--a separate being entirely, encased somehow in my body and providing me with thoughts, feelings, and movement? We're Mormon, so we believe that we existed in spirit form before we came to Earth in these bodies and that spirit returns to the spirit world when we die, but that spirit and body together form the soul and none of us is complete without that bond. We look forward to resurrection and strive for eternal life, where our bodies and spirits will come together again and be perfect, no longer experiencing the weaknesses and pains of mortality. But we don't know how it works and those are answers we have to wait on. The soul of my Seth machine is in his body and his mind. He is an organic robot and something greater, too, with limitless potential. I want him to know it. I'm still trying to remember that about myself.
Until then, we can build Lego robots together and maybe he will one day be famed for his AI work. Maybe he will find something in that that will make us all change the way we think about ourselves and limit of our own creations.
Or maybe in a year, he'll be really into dinosaurs instead. He's five. Even after all this, I don't want to read too much into it.