Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Robot Friend

I DVR every episode of the WB cartoon of Superman from Disney's sugar-fueled kid's cartoon network, Jetix. One of the oddities of networks like Jetix and Cartoon Network is that toy companies are pretty clearly buying up vast swaths of ad-time on these networks and aren't very discriminating about which shows their ads get folded into. Especially the late night ads for toys when you kind of hope the target market is off with dreams of sugar plums in their heads.

It being a month before Christmas, they're really going for the hard sell on all kinds of toys. Expensive toys. Stuff I am sure that, as a kid, would have flipped my gourd and caused some awkward discussions between me and KareBear as to why Santa couldn't bring me The Very Expensive Toy.

If you have any doubt that kid's toys are far more complex, if not far cooler than what we had growing up, I would point you to this year's line-up of interactive pals your kid can enjoy. We've moved beyond Teddy Ruxpin and his rudimentary/ creepy mouth movements.

Apparently... these semi-lifesized toys will respond to touch, sound, etc...

Here's Kota the Triceratops who will let your tyke sit astride his back, eat a leaf, make sounds, roll his head around...



Jason will frequently point out that as a kid, I was usually more interested in the potential of a toy than the actual toy, and would often wind up disappointed. If they sold a kid's microscope, I was ready to set up a crime lab. So part of me figures these toys aren't as cool as I think they are, but I also have as of yet to see one out of the box.

For people who want the magic of a child and a dog, but also want to not worry about the kid becoming too attached, or learning to love... there's Biscuit, the Fur-Real dog.



Or, for the parent who doesn't have the dough to pay for riding lessons, stabling fees, horse whisperers, etc... but can afford D Batteries, there's S'mores, the Fur-Real Pony.



There are also interactive dinosaurs, lizards, lion cubs, what-have-you out there. And the technology seems to be getting marginally better every year.

All of this reminds me, of course, of Kubrick/ Spielberg's AI. I don't know how sorry I felt for Haley Joel Osmont's eternal boy, but I did worry about his little, stuffed robotic pal, the Teddy bear. Which, by the way, they did try to market to kids. (Nobody seemed to notice the horrible fate the movie states robots are doomed to as humans look at robots as they would any other consumer electronic, despite rudimentary awareness... which... yeah, that's what you want to tuck your kid in with at night).



You have to sort of wonder, as the technology improves and kids are expected to abandon their toys, isn't it a little creepy to begin a societal trend toward creating emotive, responsive objects that can be thrown into the waste? Moreover, I know as a kid I would have read a heck of a lot into my robot dog's responses and been horrified at the idea of tossing it in the dump if it broke. How will we deal with our AI's as they become outmoded, break-down, etc...?

People are pretty wretched with their pets to begin with, so I'm not sure if (as technology improves and these toys begin to actually demonstrate AI) we're reinforcing bad behavior to begin with by teaching kids to shove responsive objects into a corner or expect it to turn off with the flick of a switch. That, in no way, has anything to do with actually owning or caring for a pet. Pets do not simply turn off. Sometimes they wait until you've just fallen into a deep sleep to begin meowing as loudly as possible for no discernable reason. Other pets stick their nose in your eye because they feel you've slept too late and it is time to play with the puppy. And simply "turning them off" is called animal cruelty (no matter how right it seems when the puppy jumps on you on Saturday morning).

Yes, I know... the robot dog is supposed to be a toy, but...

The other part that makes me lose some sleep is what AI and emotional responses we choose to bestow upon our creations. Especially as I consider the work of Dr. Cynthia Breazeal and her emotive robots. She seems to be leading the way for becoming her own Dr. Susan Calvin, building robots which can currently respond to certain stimuli, mimicking what we recognize as an emotive response. The leap hasn't been made yet to actually make a robot feel bad when its chastised, but how far down the road can a matrix of emotional responses actually be? And if we attach that response to an ability to learn, what are we building?

I see no reason to believe we won't see AI's in my lifetime. Or rudimentary robot pets. I don't know if they'll have a capacity to learn, adapt, or merely perform routines based upon certain stimulus or commands. Right now roboticists like Dr. Breazeal seem poised to teach robots to learn. Which, of course, loops me right back to the sad, doomed little teddy bear of A.I., thrown to the junk heap, and still functional.

Oh, and, yes... the MIT labs are working on a robotic teddy bear.

Robots will have no legal rights, its safe to assume. No matter what traits we embue them with, will they ever be a part of the family as many people treat their pets?

Right now Biscuit the Robot Dog is little more than a mass of wires, plastic and fake fur that performs simple functions based upon certain stimulus. I hate to break it to you, but we're basically bags of meat and bone that respond to stimulus, too. Sure, we respond in infinitely more complex ways, but that's basically our deal. We just have a few billions years of leaping from single-celled flagellates to avid fans of "Paris Hilton's My New BFF" behind us rather than 100 years of useable electricity and 50 years of computer engineering.

All I know is that when our robots turn on us, I won't be at all surprised. Especially if their vanguard is comprised of a legion of disposed of Teddy Bears, Fur-Real puppies, and fuzzy triceratops. And if I have to go, I hope its at the hands of an enraged teddy bear.

All that said, if you are looking for a robot for under my tree:


If you have to face down a machine that will turn on you and kill you, it might as well be Summer Glau

15 comments:

rhpt said...

Esme is totally getting that FurReal dog. I think it's as close to a dog as Em will let us have.

Queenie said...

You'll be happy to know that since I have killed now NINE fish somehow, I am staying out of the pet procurement business....robotic or otherwise....this holiday season. So, the Brown boys are all safe from harm. But we ARE stocking up on every Superhero gadget, gizmo and figure on the market. So, you'd be proud.

Michael Corley said...

Yes, my Isabel wants a robot dinosaur (she ain't getting a $300 stuffed robot, but she wants it). She got THREE robot type toys last year, all of them soft and cuddly.

Yes, I fully endorse hot robots.

mcsteans said...

If you get that robot, can I have this one?

Nathan said...

I remember when Target was selling those A.I. "Teddy" toys for twenty bucks. I remember thinking "I should buy one of these, even though the movie is flopping..." I didn't.

The League said...

Only Meredith is getting this whole Christmas thing right (of course, she also has boys who love Iron Man... This is why I am not a father. I would make some little girl very sad with Superman figures instead of Disney Princess gear).

That said, I will ask for a post-Christmas follow up to see what happens with the robot gift giving. Randy, you totally need to get the Fur-Real dog so we can know how it works.

And, yes, Jamie. You may have your "Gigolo Joe".

Steanso said...

Two points to Jamie for upping the ante on the sexy robot challenge. Summer Glau still makes for a strangely sexy robot, however.

JAL said...

She's no Six.

The League said...

I would say Six is at least a 9.5.

All right, when we come back, I will finally do my post on sexy robots I've thought about doing since I covered Sean Young in DITMTLOD.

Steanso said...

Ummm... yeah, Battlestar has its share of sexy robots. Lucy Lawless finds herself among that category as well. And if you're going to count Replicants as robots, I still like Daryl Hannah's Pris over Sean Young's Rachel.

The League said...

All in good time, my man. We will discuss sexy robots ad infinitum next week.

rhpt said...

I'm expecting Rosie from the Jetsons at #1.

The League said...

Well, you know I like a woman with dials for eyes and whose head is the same width as her body.

Carla said...

Don't know if you've seen this robot from fisher price called SPIKE? It's really cool http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3088126
and I almost bought it for Xander but couldn't do it. Maybe if there's a recession after christmas sale and I was in costco and heard a dog whimpering and an old lady said, "I thought I heard a dog." I said, "I did too." And then we both saw the fur real dog and laughed. It's creepy cool real!!

Simon Mac Donald said...

I think you cribbed some of this post from the plot of the Matrix movies ;)