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Imaginary Friends

by on February 9, 2018

                                      Imaginary Friends

                                                       by Marco M. Pardi

A friend is a second self” Aristotle.

All comments are welcome, and will receive a response.

Everything I’ve read about early childhood development indicates having an imaginary friend, or friends, is normal. Normal? Although certainly a candidate for such a phenomenon, I never had an imaginary friend. Wow, talk about getting picked last for the team, or not at all. But, the whole Cosmos?

So, I learned about this later in life, like I learned that many people dream in black and white. Surely these must be people who didn’t have color tv?

I also learned some people talk in their sleep. Long ago and far away, on a bona fide Category 1 Alert, I had to temporarily bunk with two other guys. That made for really crowded quarters but, working solo and only at night I was on a different schedule. Quietly preparing to leave for duty late one night I noticed that one of the two sleeping guys was mumbling something. I was certain he was asleep but I engaged him with a question. As he answered, the other guy started talking, answering the comments the first guy made in response to my question. Curious, I coached a bit more and by the time I quietly left they were in conversation with each other. I was positive then, and now, they were asleep. The next day they each said they remembered nothing of it.

I think the term friend is applied too easily and has been for long before Facebook. How many times have you heard someone referring to a friend of theirs and, when you asked the name, they said, Uh, I can’t remember just now? What about this person qualified them for the category Friend? I think the term acquaintance is not only more appropriate, but more likely accurate. Yes, I realize that word is multi-syllabic and therefore too inconvenient for many. In a society fueled by grunts it is unlikely to gain currency.

Some years ago I worked with a man who told me he had a girlfriend for sex and a girlfriend for intelligent conversation. So I asked him, Where does your wife fit in all of this? His answer: Oh, you know. Family, kids and all that. Of course, it’s also too easy to presume that every relative is a friend. When facing pressure to attend a relative’s party or other function I have long been in the habit of asking myself, If this person were not a relative, would I have them as a friend? It’s interesting to see how the balance of answers plays out.

I was reminded of those two sleep talkers when I visited a cousin at his home in Newport, Rhode Island. This guy is a relative and a friend, though he and I both seem to understand we can take just so much of each other. Short visits are best.

Several of us gathered before dinner in his upstairs drawing room filled floor to ceiling with centuries of art and antiques mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. Watching everyone settle their modern physiques into ancient furniture, my gaze fell upon a “something in this picture doesn’t belong” object. It seemed to be a truncated plastic cone sitting on a table probably once owned by some moustachioed potentate. As I was about to ask the provenance of this exquisite object my cousin said, “Alexa….” and asked “her” to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B Flat Minor. A very lovely voice agreed to do this and in an instant we were transported. Thereafter I found it was possible to engage Alexa in basic conversations. You just have to know how to appropriately phrase questions and statements; a bit like conversing with a stranger.

Still warm inside from that marvelous voice, I found that Google had come out with a similar device. Of course, my first thought was to get them both in a room and try to get them talking to each other. Admittedly, my inspiration came not simply from the sleep talkers cited above, but largely from Alan Turing. The polymath who spear headed the cracking of the German Enigma code, Turing is also considered by many to be the father of the modern computer. Turing’s central dream, before he was driven to take his own life, was to develop a computer of such sophistication that a human, in a blinded test, would be unable to determine if he was communicating with another person or with a machine. Some readers will recognize this as a central theme in the recent television re-make of Westworld. Much attention in the series is placed on the cosmetics, the human appearance and movement of the cyborgs. More on that later, but my focus is on whether the software in the Amazon device and the Google device could be tweaked such that placing them in the same room we could present each of them with the Turing test; could we ask them to tell us if they are communicating with a human or with a computer. Could they become friends? Would they argue? (Of course, a chaperone would be present to prevent untoward outcomes like little plastic devices popping out all over the room.)

The possibility that one plus one might equal more than two got me scanning my bookcases for Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near. A dense but readable tome, Kurzweil outlines and explains how we, albeit unknowingly, have marched to the edge of a new domain in which the equation will be reversed: Machines which had hitherto accepted instructions from Man and existed only as products of Man begin issuing their own instructions, including to Man, and begin constructing their own machines with intelligence and capabilities beyond our ability to understand. I have long thought many of us are already there. An avid fan and owner of sports/racing cars since my teens, I continually marveled at acquaintances who had no idea what happens between the ignition key and the wheels. “Somebody does” seemed to be the dismissive answer.

But to be frank, I have little to no idea what happens between my keyboard and the monitor I’m watching. By the way, I never went to secretarial school so I’m a few finger typer and I have to look at the keys, pausing to see if what I think I’ve (written?) makes sense. With voice command software I wonder if I could get Alexa to write my blog for me, or would it be far too atmospheric for the meager 3 pound jelly bean in my skull. Would you be able to tell?

Getting back to the perfectly realistic androids of West World, Japan has made amazing advances in this area, even developing a sex android that enables the user to simulate rape. Should that be off the market, or should it be considered a deterrent, a kind of release valve for those who would rape humans in its absence?

I’m well beyond the age where a mere assemblage of parts inspires me to do the Hokey Pokey. But I never considered that a basis for friendship anyway. What Kurzweil predicts is an autonomous (mind?) of such capacity as to leave me standing with ignition key in hand asking, What do I do now? Now THAT is exciting. But of course, we all know of the advent of self-driving cars. My question is: What happens when my car gets mad at me, perhaps for leering at the Aston Martin in the next lane?

As for looks, we’ve all heard someone say, Looks don’t matter. I’m not pushing Beauty and the Beast but I am seriously doubtful that that statement has no limits. But the age old question applies: What do you see in that person? I’ve had some friends, and still do. They are a very tiny percentage of my acquaintances. But this tiny percentage spans a rather large spectrum of easily apparent traits. The common denominator among these friends is a profoundly intellectual mind, the secret in plain sight. Over the years I’ve not been at all surprised when some acquaintances and certain relatives dismissed my friends as strange or out for something. Physically attractive female friends were dismissed as passing sex interests. Obviously, it takes a mind to recognize a mind.

If completely autonomous and self-conscious androids with emotional ranges to match mine were developed would they be a good choice as a friend? Up into my late teens I was a “hide my light” kind of kid. But I slowly opened up and even college was mostly a sleeper. However, what would a friendship be like with “someone” who could learn, understand, and apply an idea in a minuscule fraction of the time it takes me, if I do it at all? Before her death a woman lived and traveled several years with me. We were seamlessly matched, often deeply engaged in cooperative conversations into dawn of the next day. Of course, those acquaintances and relatives cited earlier presumed it was mainly sexual. As the saying goes, When you know only a hammer everything’s a nail.

I suspect some people with android friends may have a problem reconciling the onset of aging in themselves while the android is, physically, just as originally assembled. And, as the human mental function declines we might see the android having to ascend to a caretaker role. After all, we see versions of this play out in human to human relationships; one partner’s performance declines while the other remains basically vigorous. Unless you have a Galapagos tortoise or certain species of parrot for pets you experience similar disparities with your pets.

I have to cut this short for today. The toaster has plans.

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  1. Ray Rivers permalink

    Hilarious Marco – and yetso relevant – I have a google home assistant which I have been training to converse with me, though it is still reluctant. Good fun.


  2. Thank you, Ray. I will be curious to learn of your progress. Perhaps we should devise a code so I will know it is you reporting.

    So glad you enjoyed it. Marco


  3. As usual, you have given me much to think about. I never had imaginary friends as a child, not many real ones either, unless you count the people I imagined were my friends, or who imagined me to be theirs. I did meet a girl at day camp who had her own imaginary world; after camp, we corresponded for the rest of the summer, often discussing what was going there.

    I completely agree with you that the word “friend” is used much too casually. In the day when we held all those long conversations, I never imagined myself worthy of holding that title in your world. It pleases me to believe that perhaps it has now been earned. If, as you say, it has been based on a shared intellectual platform, then I believe it was well earned on both ends, and will last a lifetime.

    You can choose your friends, but not your relatives. When serious thought is given to this statement, I realize that most of my relatives would not be my friends; we don’t know each other well enough, and have little in common. I am the odd one out, and I like it that way.

    Artificial intelligence has been a thing of fiction for many years. I am fascinated by its possibilities in reality; there are so many potential positive applications. But, the sex android you write of terrifies me. Far from being a release valve, my fear is that it would normalize the act of rape, allowing the perpetrator to act on his urges in the real world. Let me add here that being raped has always been one of my greatest fears.

    I have met people here on line who I sincerely believe would be my friends if we were ever to meet in reality. Does this make them my friends? I’d adore the opportunity to find out.


  4. Thank you, Rose. I considered you my true friend then, and I certainly do now. Which reminds me of the interesting mix when two people of opposite sex, who are married to others, find sincere friendship. How easily it is misinterpreted by others.

    I’m sure every reader has been surprised at some point to find someone was in fact not a friend. And, relatives often cannot understand why they don’t automatically qualify. I wonder if a fully conscious android would tire of my company. That would be a let down.

    I agree you have found friends on line and it has always been my fantasy to one day facilitate a gathering. Probably not to be.


    • I simply cannot imagine any being of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, who would ever tire of your conversation, or your company. Your words stir thought and thought stirs learning; it gets no better than that.


  5. Dana permalink

    Marco, you raised some interesting and really humorous points about artificial intelligence, ones to which I had never given much thought. While I appreciate technological progress, I’m alternately fascinated by and uneasy with some of the advances and ethical concerns.

    There is a interesting fictional sci fi series produced in the UK called Black Mirror, sort of a 21st century Twilight Zone. One episode is about a company that produces an extremely lifelike Android of a deceased loved one, complete with memories and personality quirks uploaded from a life time of social media, emails, photos – anything related to the individual that can be gleaned from their own Internet history. Of course some pretty creepy ethical issues crop up. Good stuff.

    I’ve never had an imaginary friend, which always surprised me given my childhood with few actual friends and a strong tendency toward introversion. My best friends were found in nature and weren’t human.

    I still don’t have many friends, and this is fine by me. I’m glad you are among them, and the few I have possess the minds I mist admire. My dogs have always been at the top of the list.


    • Thank you, Dana. I share your reservations about AI. What you describe in that series sounds static, unable to appreciably incorporate new information including feelings and reaction to experience. Given your practically eidetic memory – I’ve seen you orally quote me word for word from months before – I would be certain you would lose patience pretty quickly with an android who could only parrot the past.

      Of course your closest friends were non-human. You are a child of nature. a nymph temporarily out of her element.


  6. Julie permalink

    Friendship seems to mean something different depending who you are. I’m not sure technology could replace human relationships, however I know of a couple of reclusive people who rely on their online friendships as they rarely see face to face friends – which for me feels very sad. Having direct human friendship brings many different  elements that technology could never provide. As for what  classifies as a friend – that can be very diverse as different people fit into different parts of my life, being personalities, ages, interests etc and all being quite different and for that reason ‘a party’ is not something I would do to bring them all together for example of celebrating my birthday, Julie


    • Thank you, Julie. Your comment brings to mind the oft asked question, What do you see in that person? This was an exercise in musing on the solitary life, something I always idealized but was never able to do well. I agree our current technology is not quite there. But, being one of those semi-reclusive people, by circumstance and not by choice, I wonder how media is filling the gap. This blog itself is a connection for me, and I always appreciate your efforts at reaching back. Marco


      • Solitary living, I feel, would only suit very few people as we are naturally social creatures – it really is all about feeling “connected “ for the individual and we are all different and have different needs. Interesting as you say about the possibility of media filling the gap – as with the rise of all the reality television being so popular- that says something for our times! I also feel a connection with your blog and feels a space (connection) for me that I truly appreciate – this is a great example of technology at it’s finest 👍


        • Years ago a couple of close friends and I explored Taoism and developed a deep appreciation for the ultimately solitary nature of the philosophy. We decided to form a group on that basis, then had a good laugh about what a meeting of Introverts Anonymous would be like.

          I’ve always said, if I were forced to reincarnate it would be into a Buddhist monastic community. There is a fine understanding of our truly solitary quest as it must be tempered with social contact. Early on in the Christian hermetic traditions the more enlightened people strongly warned against solitary hermitage; they knew that going crazy was only a matter of time.

          Yes, I’ve often said I deeply appreciate the connection we have, even though it is across half the Earth.


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