Rise of the robots

Loneliness, a desire for control, or just a bit of fun? Why young men are dreaming of a Robosapien for Christmas.

Kunal Dutta

Topics Politics

What is our obsession with artificially intelligent toys?

Two factories in southern China are working flat out on overtime. At the end of each day, 5,000 remote-control robots emerge off their conveyor belts. Up to eight more factories are ramping up robot production in time for the end of the year.

This is no hi-tech military takeover – it is Britain and America’s outsourcing project that will ensure the dreams of men and young boys are kept alive this Christmas. Robosapien – the 17-inch robot that belches, breaks wind and does Kung Fu on demand – has been billed as the toy of 2004 and is expected to become one of the top-selling gadgets over the festive season.

Isn’t this a story that we have heard before? When I was young, the Japanese toy company Tomy produced a line of motorised robots such as Chatbot, Dingbot and Omnibot. With Star Wars and R2D2 leading the 1980s charge, these products had a unique appeal: a toy that somehow seemed too futuristic and pricey for us to purchase immediately, yet at the same time only one special Christmas or birthday present away.

Although neither my friends nor myself ever owned one, these toy robots were fuel for the imagination. We would blow up robots’ capabilities to an alarming degree. These things, we’d tell each other, could not just wake you up in the morning but could cook your breakfast and bring it to you in bed (fat chance – Tomy’s Omnibot barely moved 10 metres before the radio signal had fallen out of range and the bandwidth had inadvertently reset all your household appliances).

Since then, we have lived through the 1990s Tamagotchi craze (Japanese digital pet that would usually last three days before our attention wandered, leaving it dead or reincarnated as a key ring: 40 million sold worldwide); the Furby era (fluffy little bird with a computer chip inside that would keep you up for days repeating all the swear words it had learnt: 17 million sold worldwide); as well as last year’s Sony Aibo (a programmable robotic dog with adaptive behaviour and emotional responses: 45,000 worldwide at a cost of nearly £1,000 each).

Given the hype surrounding Robosapien it is easy to get carried away. After all, it is designed by a former NASA scientist, has cost over $1million to develop, sold a total of almost 1.4million units across the world and even debuted on the Playboy Channel. So does it make our breakfast, resolve our heartache or even clean our house? Not really. Aside from a sizeable leap in technology – Robosapien has 67 different functions and humanistic, as opposed to mechanical, movements – the basic offering is similar to the Tomy products of nearly 20 ago.

What is interesting are the swathes of young men who are coveting the product. Recent research has suggested that the main purchasers of Robosapien are 18- to 55-year-old women buying it for their husband, boyfriend or son (1).

So what is the attraction? For some, it’s just fun. ‘There is something fascinating about the simplicity of working machinery that remains universal, and regardless of age’, says Dr Ken Young, chairman of the British Automation and Robot Association. Bal Stedham, chairman of the toy retailers association, agrees. ‘It’s a visually appealing toy with a short shelf life’, she says. ‘As long as it entertains you, it doesn’t need to do much else’.

This point is echoed by Steve Morris, a 26-year-old accountant from north London. In a toy store in London’s Oxford Street, he hogs the remote control of a Robosapien demonstration model, while a young child looks on bedazzled. Within minutes of making the toy walk forward and back, stretch its arms and spin its hands, Steve is sold – picking up a unit at a parting cost of £80. ‘Yes it’s for me’, he says. ‘A toy capable of totally independent thought would be way too freaky. I just want something cool to muck about with in my spare time.’

For others, it is about more than just the gadgetry. Brian Brown, computer psychologist at De Montfort University, told me that in an increasingly disordered world, robots can help to fulfil people’s desire for control. ‘The past had clear commands of authority – nowadays, in a world of flat-structured organisations and the demise of hierarchy, that is no longer the case. Real life is becoming more scary and unpredictable. Robots allow us to escape to a world order of binaries, where ticking the right boxes will ensure the right results’, says Brown. ‘With friendships, relationships and job security in the real world, you never have the same assurance.’

Then there are those who look towards robots to provide emotional companionship. This is particularly true in Japan where religions such as Shinto and Buddhism believe that all things in nature have a spirit and soul. Products such as the Tamagotchi and Aibo are presented as intelligent and emotional living beings, rather than just subservient and functional gadgets.

To increase its realism, Japanese engineering will often integrate human-like failings into its programming – part of the Aibo dog’s ‘attitude’ comes from its inbuilt setting to occasionally ‘ignore’ its owner (2). Such engineering will have its payoffs. In a survey of Aibo owners conducted by the University of Washington-Seattle, 38 per cent of respondents thought that Aibo was capable of feeling real emotions. It was also found that senior citizens who were given an Aibo formed an emotional attachment to it within six weeks (3).

These anthropomorphic qualities are key to the appeal of toy robots. Andrew Sheldon, a 25-year-old design student from Manchester, was also eyeing up a Robosapien at the Oxford Street toy store. ‘Toys which have quasi-intelligence are interesting because of their unpredictability’, he says. ‘The whole point is that they learn and react back to you. Like the internet, it is their interactivity that keeps you interested more than a static medium would.’

Already Andrew talks half-heartedly about Robosapien, shifting his attention to the Sony Qrio robot that recently made its prototype debut in the UK. Boasting all the functions of Robosapien, the five-foot tall Qrio promises to place Japanese emotional magic ahead of functional mechanics – recognising faces, holding intelligent conversations with users and being able to judge distances, accelerations and angles (4).

In the 1980s, robots were fuelling the dreams of young children brought up on futuristic films such as Short Circuit and Star Wars. Now they are being looked towards to establish control in an increasingly complex world, while purporting to cater for emotional needs. This is a kind of mental baggage that even the most intelligent robot engineering may find itself at odds to solve.

Kunal Dutta is an intern at spiked. He has lived in America and worked in the advertising industry.

(1) ‘Belching Robot Likely to be Top Christmas Toy’, Tech News World 1 November 2004

(2) Building Emotional Machines, Ana Viseu, University of Toronto

(3) For Humans and Robot It’s Puppy Love, USA Today, 28 January 2004

(4) Humanoid Robot Qrio Makes UK Debut, Scotsman, 5 November 2004

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Topics Politics


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