|Cybernetic culture research unit|
Robot's aren't what they used to be
Even now, at the very beginning of the new millennium, it is clear that the age of robots is already dawning. Science fiction writers have long anticipated this development, but the way in which it is occurring is stranger than even they imagined.
The word robot - Czech for 'forced laborer' - was first used as the name for a 'mechanical man' in Karel Capek's 1920 play RUR. Capek envisaged his robots as automated slaves designed to replace human workers, an idea that has maintained a tenacious grip on the twentieth century mind.
As far as the age of robots is concerned the world has been divided into optimists, who look forward to the relief of industrial and domestic drudgery, and pessimists, who expect unemployment, social dislocation, and even extermination. Capek himself belonged to the pessimist camp.
Whatever their differences, both sides in this debate have been united in the assumption that robots were basically a serious matter, and that - as their name implies - their destiny would be to work.
What might now be described as the 'traditional' robot industry largely conforms to this vision. The usage of robot workers was pioneered by the automobile industry, and later adopted by consumer electronics, biotechnology, and robotics manufacturing, especially in Japan which currently possesses more than 50 percent of the world's 750 000 industrial robots.
Whilst the robotic automation of production continues to revolutionize manufacturing processes around the world, what it is unable to do - by its very nature - is generate a mass robot market. The true dawning of the robot age requires a migration from the capital-goods to the consumer sector; not merely production by - but also mass production of - robots.
In order to become items of mass-consumption robots have had to undergo a rapid and astonishing transformation, from mechanical slave laborers to ludicrous toys and pets. By the turn of the millennium it was already obvious that alongside the serious world of industrial, military, medical, and space-faring robots an explosion of new and frivolous robot-species was taking place.
The most important direct precursor to the new wave of robot pets was not a robot at all. In 1996 Bandai Corp. released its Tamagotchi or "cute little egg," an "original virtual pet" consisting of a microchip-supported digital cartoon chicken, accessed through a small LCD. Priced at about US$16, Tamagotchi immediately became a major craze and racked-up spectacular sales, shipping over 70 million units in 1996 alone.
The crucial innovation underlying the Tamagotchi phenomenon was that it required constant attention from its owner, who had to feed, entertain, scold, medicate, and clean up after it in order to keep it alive. Tamagotchi rearing became a major social preoccupation, disrupting the activity of schools and even businesses. The Bandai instruction manual contained the following ominous warning: "If you keep your Tamagotchi full and happy, it will grow into a cute, happy cyber creature. If you neglect Tamagotchi, it will grow into an unattractive alien."
Perhaps the most decisive role in the creation of a mass-market consumer robot industry was played by the toy giant Hasbro (maker of Trivial Pursuit and Mr. Potato Head).In 1997, seeking to cash-in on the Tamagotchi craze, Hasbro introduced their own Giga-Pets line, competitively priced at US$10, and becoming the top selling toy of the year. This proved to be only the beginning of an astonishing run for Hasbro.
In 1998 the company bought Tiger Electronics, and began embodying digital pets in robot toys. The pioneering device was Furby, "a cuddly stand-alone animatronic pet," launched in October 1998, priced in the US$30 range. Furby set the standard for a new breed of mass-market robots, or "interactive toys."
Like a Tamagotchi or Giga-Pet, Furby required attention and "rearing," although its sensitivity, behavior, and personality development was far more complicated. Furby displayed a combination of emotions, and learnt to speak and sing in its own language - Furbish - and also in English. To appeal to boys it was equipped with a fart-reflex. Furby could interact with other Furby's, using an infrared channel to exchange behaviors. It was also programmed to be unpredictable. As Scott Kirsner remarked in an article in Wired magazine: "If one Furby was angry, another Furby in the same room might start singing to soothe it." Furby was the best selling toy of 1998. Tiger also took the top spot the following year with Furby Babies, and astoundingly repeated the achievement yet again in 2000, although this time in response to innovations at Sony.
In 1999 the sophistication of robot pets underwent a quantum leap under the influence of Sony's Digital Creations Laboratory and it's 'robot dog' Aibo (whose name means 'companion' in Japanese, as well as being an acronym for Artificial Intelligence roBOt). Aibo married the already standard features of robot pets -- movement, communication, emotion, and maturation -- with state-of-the-art robotics. Aibo's elaborate range of instinctive and learnt behaviors enabled it to explore, adapt, bond with its owner and respond to training.
In June 1999 a limited edition of 5,000 first generation Aibos were put on the market, priced at US$2500 each. Japan's quota of 3,000 was completely sold out in 20 minutes! The 2,000 allotted to the U.S. had all been sold in four days.
In November 2000 135,000 orders were received for the production run of 10,000 second generation Aibos. Sony has since sold at least 45,000 Aibos, which remains by far the most advanced robot pet on the market.
It was not long before Hasbro's Tiger Electronics released its own robot dog, Poo-Chi. Selling at around US$30, Poo-Chi has a moving head, ears, legs and mouth, it barks, speaks, and sings six different songs, stands, sits, and dances on tiptoes, senses light, sounds, and touch, and its animated eyes convey the emotions of happiness, sadness, and love. Its "advanced bio-rhythmic technology" allows it to interact with other Poo-Chi puppies.
In the year of its release over 10 million Poo-Chi units were sold in 65 countries worldwide, including 1.5 million over the Christmas season in the U.S. alone. Poo-Chi was the No.1 selling toy for the year 2000.
In the wake of Poo-Chi's phenomenal success, Tiger's line of Robo-Chi Pets was expanded to include Super Poo-Chi; Meow-Chi the interactive cat; Chirpy-Chi a talkative bird; Petal-Chi a dancing flower; two Dino-Chi toys (T-Rex and Pterodactyl); and perhaps most bizarre of all Shelby, "an adorable, talkative interactive clam" with animated eyes, antennas, and mouth, whose 180-word vocabulary mixes English, Furbish and its own special language, Shelbish.
As robots migrate from the factory into the home, from the capital-goods sector into the mass-consumer market, they are undergoing an unanticipated change in nature. No one - not even the most imaginative science-fiction writer - ever predicted that the first wave of mass-produced robots would include a talking clam! More importantly, few if any can have expected that the first social niche to be subject to large-scale robot colonization would be that of pets.
The ruthlessly functional soulless slave-laborers of twentieth century robot fantasies were intended as replacements for humans. The basic flaws in this gloomy and totalitarian vision are clearly exposed by the exploding population of robot dogs.
The Economist magazine quotes Sony's Toshi Doi introducing Aibo with the words: "This machine is completely useless." He predicts that the demand for these "useless" entertainment robots will exceed the PC market in ten-to-thirty years time.
Unlike manufacturers, consumers value autonomy and personality in their robots. If robots are to share our lives we expect them to function as companions with social capabilities: communication, emotion, and interactivity. It seems that we want them to need us. We even demand that they respond badly to neglect.