Fred D'Ignozio, Associate Editor
The Robot Inside You
Why are children so fascinated with robots? For that matter, why is everyone so fascinated with robots? The answer is that robots seem the most lifelike of all machines, and the most like real people.
When we see a little robot "toddler" like HEROjr sing songs to a trashcan, or when we watch a Movit robot like the WAO (pronounced "Wow") skitter crablike around the kitchen floor, avoiding tables and gargantuan human feet, we feel an uncanny thrill, as if we are watching a minor miracle. We know that these little machines are not alive. But they are sending visual cues of "aliveness" to the deepest parts of our brain. And these visual processing centers are flashing the message "Alive! Alive!" to the higher-level, rational center of our brain. We can deny that the machines are alive, but we will continue to feel that somehow they really are.
Young children most strongly and visibly reflect this sense of the aliveness of robots. Children's unfettered imaginations and their incomplete mastery of the scientific view of the world (so ingrained in us adults) cause them to see all sorts of objects as being alive-including teddy bears, dolls, shadows, imaginary friends, and, of course, robots. For them, the logic is simple: If it seems alive and acts alive, then it must be alive.
Not only do children ascribe the quality of aliveness to an object based on its behavior, but they also project a psychology-a personality or character-into the object. The object's personality stems partly from its behavior (if a robot sings to a trashcan, it must be a "silly" robot), but also as a projection of children's own personalities-their wishes, dreams, fears, and subconscious feelings. It would be impossible for children to articulate what these feelings and attributes are, but they sense them immediately in a teddy bear, a beloved blanket, or an animated little robot.
The being that children see in these objects is very real, since it is a part of themselves. It may be their dark side, light side, or their happy or sad side, but it is an expression of a dimension of their own personality. Collectively these dimensions form children's complex, often contradictory humanity. In a real sense, then, there is a robot-a multitude of robots-inside every child; indeed, there are robots inside every one of us.
It is interesting to watch children struggle with the "Is it alive or not?" dilemma presented by to day's robots and lifelike computer programs because we will all soon be facing this dilemma. In the coming years we adults will find our rational, scientific view of machines and other nonliving objects challenged by their increasingly lifelike characteristics. Their speech, mobility, sense of the world around them, and lifelike response are improving rapidly. All these traits will soon offer compelling evidence to our subconscious that the machines are really alive.
Kids feel this way already. For example, one little neighborhood boy of COMPUTE! staffer Debi Nash played the new Activision game "Modern Computer People" in which little beings live inside the computer and interact with the world outside. The boy believed in the little creatures, and came by the Nash's house every day to talk with them and watch them live their lives. Unfortunately, one of the little people began to overeat. No matter what Debi and her family did, he kept stuffing himself. Suddenly the program crashed, and the person disappeared. Debi told me that telling the boy about the person's demise was as hard to do as telling him that one of his friends had died.
Here in Birmingham, my sixyear-old son Eric recently spent a couple days with A.G. Bear from Axlon Corp. A.G. talks in bear language but mimics human speech tones and rhythms with a little microchip in a voice box inside his chest. When Eric took A.G. to bed the first night, he had to take the voice box out of A.G. and leave it on the coffee table in the living room. Otherwise, A.G. would have begun talking every time Eric rolled over in bed or muttered something in his sleep. Eric happily took the bear to bed with him, but before he did he rushed over to the coffee table and wished the voice box good night. As I watched this little ritual from across the living room, I had the weird feeling that, for Eric, the voice box somehow held the little bear's electronic soul.
Last week, my nine-year-old daughter Catie and I were at the Bits & Bytes Computer Show for Children in Dallas, Texas. Together, she and I spoke to almost 400 schoolchildren about "Robot Pets & Friends." We demonstrated several popular robots, including Omnibot 2000, the Movit Family, and HEROjr, and we held a "Design Your Own Robot" contest which Catie judged.
The children's robot designs were original, diverse, and complex. To some extent, they resembled the robots that Catie and I had demonstrated and the robots of popular movies and TV shows. To a much greater extent, however, they were reflections of the children's own personalities. They were a revealing glimpse of the robots that dwell inside all of us.