A viral video of a young girl named Rayna hanging with a new robot best friend, who is actually a hot water heater, is getting passed around the internet as evidence of the looming rise of the robots and of kids continuing to be awesome and weird. The clip is every bit as delightful as you’d expect: Rayna befriends the hot water heater and then, having got to know it a bit, embraces it. It’s solid stuff, but a more scientifically minded viewer might wonder why the hell this sort of thing happens. Did Rayna take Brave Little Toaster at face value or that the Little Engine actually could? Does she think the singularity has arrived? In fact, there is a scientific explanation: pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon that causes humans to read into non-facial imagery, mentally forming likenesses where there are known. This is also why kids think toilets have personalities.
Pareidolia may seem like something only children would be susceptible to, but a Virgin Mary grilled cheese selling for $28,000 represents hard evidence that adults are have the same wiring. This is so common, there is even a twitter account named Faces In Things dedicated to objects that weirdly look like they may have a soul. Still, there is a reason kids are uniquely qualified for this mind trick. Kids are less able to recognize the subtleties of human faces. It’s a skill that often goes unrecognized, but that it takes roughly 15 years to perfect, which means preteens are particularly prone to anthropomorphize appliances and enjoying the soulful singing of Disney’s candelabras.
For now, pareidolia may seem like a funny little trick your mind can play on you, but could there be an evolutionary benefit to it? Naturally. Animals that see faces where there are no faces survive a hell of a lot longer than animals that fail see faces where there are faces. That latter group not only fails to befriend water heating units, but frequently gets eaten.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the video is that Rayna doesn’t think she sees a human. She thinks she sees a humanoid robot. Implicit in that is the recognition that artificial intelligence is evolving and proliferating. So the internet can laugh all it wants, but she’s the one who really gets what’s going on. The water heater isn’t her friend yet, but it will be. Just ask Alexa.