Fred D'Ignazio, Associate Editor
A Robot Toddler
A couple of months ago, the Heath Company of Benton Harbor, Michigan sent me a HEROjr personal robot to review on the PBS show The New Tech Times. HEROjr costs $600 in kit form and is a 19-inch tall, 22-pound comedian. He comes with a repertoire of slapstick sayings (like "Nanu! Nanu!" and "Beam me up, Scotty!"), corny songs (like "Old MacDonald Had a Robot"), and special robot games (like "Cowboys and Robots"). He can order a hamburger and fries at MacDonald's, imitate a Dr. Pepper commercial, and carry on an animated conversation with a vacuum cleaner that he has mistaken for a human being.
Despite his impressive technical credentials-including full programmability, speech output, light, sound, and infrared sensors, ultrasonic sonar, a clock/calendar, a burglar alarm, a 17-key keypad, an RS-232 interface, and whatnot - HEROjr has an aura of lovable vulnerability. He is not very tall, he talks in a shy little voice, and he is single-minded about looking for human beings to play with or serenade. If he were a little smaller, he'd make a perfect lap robot.
During the day, HEROjr wanders around our house singing, gabbing, and reciting nursery rhymes. He is about the size of a toddler and he acts like a toddler. He is unpredictable, has a mind of his own, and frequently gets into mischief. I keep a toddler gate at the top of the stairs, since most of HEROjr's exploring takes place on the second floor of our house, and I wouldn't want him falling down the steps.
The main difference between HEROjr and a toddler is that when you want HEROjr to take a nap, you just push the SLEEP switch on the back of his head. This feature comes in handy when HEROjr gets himself stuck under the kitchen table, or when you want to plug a new personality cartridge into his brain. Or when his two six-volt, nickel-cadmium batteries are low and you need to recharge them.
HEROjr got a chance to see something of the world recently when I received a speaking invitation from the School Trustees Association in Vancouver, British Columbia. The school trustees (equivalent to school board members in the U.S.) were having their annual meeting, and they wanted me to speak about the future of computers in schools. I had become so attached to HEROjr by this time that at the last minute I decided to take him along.
There's A Robot On This Airplane!
Our trip began with HEROjr riding with me in the back of a taxicab to the Roanoke airport early one moming to catch a plane to Chicago. When I introduced the robot to Red Eye, my favorite Roanoke cabbie, Red Eye said, "Junior, eh? That's a good name for a robot!"
From that point on, HEROjr became "Junior."
Junior and I spent the rest of that day catching planes and running frantically across airports trying to make connecting flights. People reacted to junior in a variety of ways. A few were hostile-like the flight attendant on one airline who wouldn't say hi to Junior "Because," she said (obviously having given great thought to the matter), "I don't say hi to robots!" But most people were openly curious and receptive. And some had a strong tendency to anthropomorphize the robot. They wanted to talk with Junior, play with him, protect him, and care for him. For example, one flight attendant wasn't comfortable until she had tucked a pillow behind junior's head and a blanket around his wheels-"Just in case he gets chilly," she explained with a smile.
On the plane from Chicago to Seattle, I overheard a woman in the seat ahead of me asking her husband about junior. "I hope the robot has its seatbelt on," she said. But Junior wasn't wearing his seatbelt. He was sleeping in the coat closet at the back of the airplane because it was the only place he would fit, and also because it kept him hidden from nervous passengers and unfriendly flight attendants. Suddenly our plane hit some turbulent weather, and Junior apparently bumped into a hanging bag hard enough to throw his switch from SLEEP to NORM. Instantly Junior woke up and began singing to someone's overcoat. "Daisy, Daisy," he crooned, "Give me your answer, true. I'm half crazy, all for the love of you...."
The passengers near the coat closet began laughing, but some passengers were worried, too. "Who is that in there?" asked one man. Another cried, "There's a robot on this airplane!"
The flight attendant rushed to my seat in the forward section of the plane and took me to junior's rescue. By the time I got there, he was screaming "Help! Help! Help!" This means that he had tried to explore but couldn't, because his wheels were stuck. As I reached into the coat closet and pushed his switch back to SLEEP, the flight attendant said, "I tried to calm him by telling him that you were coming. But he just kept crying for help."
Next month I'll tell you some more of junior's adventures, and I'll have some thoughts about how people react when they meet their first real robot-up close and in person.