Indeed, McClure has noticed that machines tend to be given female names, possibly for sexist reasons. “I suspect that there’s some attempt to exercise male control over the female,” he says. In the modern world, this might explain the tradition of naming tunnel-boring machines – giant, 150-metre long monstrosities with several rows of sharp teeth – after women. The £14.8 billion ($19.6 billion) Crossrail project was dug by Ada, Phyllis, Victoria, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia, Jessica and Ellie.
At the extreme end, this tendency to humanise the machines we rely on may lead to real emotional connections, as it did with Boomer in Iraq. “People anthropomorphise – get inside the heads of – objects constantly, and considering an object like a robot as human if that robot has an integral part in your survival is not that surprising,” says Lasana Harris, a psychologist at University College London.
Just like with other humans, it seems that these connections are strengthened by shared trauma. Mourning lost military robots isn’t at all unusual; on one occasion, the manufacturers were reportedly been sent a box of robot remains, along with a note saying “can you fix it?”
But another common motive is loneliness. Way back in our evolutionary past, seeking out other people to bond with was vital to our survival. This is thought to be the reason that social isolation or rejections, such as break-ups, often manifest themselves as physical pain; our bodies will do everything in their power to encourage us to make friends and keep them.
When humans are unavailable, our social needs must be met elsewhere. This may be a volleyball on a desert island, or a robot in an empty lab. According to a report in Wired magazine, some people buy Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners for lonely relatives, to keep them company. One retired professor who lived alone considered hers as her companion.