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issue 09/15/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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1 Notice though that I used "it" and Amelia used "she," a perhaps troubling indication of the kind of identity problem that kids often struggle with; though my Raggedy-Ann was definitely a 'she.' Sherry Turkle, MIT professor who is studying self-identity and the Net, says, on the topic of talking and life-like electronic toys and kids, 'proceed with caution.'

2 High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian, by Cliff Stoll and Siobahn Adcock, Anchor Books, 2000.

3 For a more complete discussion of this report, entitled ""Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and Childhood," see the San Francisco Chronicle article, "High-tech Classrooms Hurt Kids," Sept., 12, 2000 at

4 This information is taken from a New York Times article, "Can Robots Rule the World," Sept. 12, 2000.



Robots "R" Us
image courtesy The Robot Home Page

Robots "R" Us

by Cate Gable

When I was about four my next door neighbor-lady, Laura Ramaley, presented me with one of my first dolls-a hand-made Raggedy-Ann. Since I was interested in medicine, she came with her own nurse outfit (a doctor being an unheard-of profession for a little girl). She had a blue hooded cape, á la Florence Nightingale, a white apron over a gingham dress, white bloomers, and an embroidered, red heart on her chest that said, "I love you."

I loved her too. I still have her.

Flash forward fifty years to 4-year old Amelia Mazzarella's iRobot "demo doll-a baby girl in a frilly dress [that] has definitely seen better days. Her rubber face is smudged, her already noisy servomotors are groaning away, and an ugly metal screw protrudes from the back of her head." (For Erik Davis' complete article "Congratulations, It's a Bot" see Wired, September 2000 issue)

Amelia seems to flip between imaginative conspiracy and reality mode. She treats her "My Real Baby" prototype first like a real 'pretend' baby-putting a bottle in its mouth when it says, "More" and scrunches up its lips in true-nursing fashion. Then she switches to treating it like the hardware & software bundle it is, asking iRobot's interactive toy division director, Jonathan Klein, "Does she have batteries?" and "What makes her sound that way?" 1

In the end, though, she whispers to her dad, "Can I have one?"

When Sony's Aibo robotic pup, priced at $2,500, instantly sold out last year other toy makers quickly jumped on the bandwagon. The Hasbro iRobot doll is only one of several entrants into the high tech toy category. Mattel's Toy Innovation has its own wired-babydoll in trial called "Miracle Moves Baby." And MGA is set to launch its electronic-tyke into the ring. "My Dream Baby" grows, its torso slowly extending like a telescope, until it ultimately learns to walk. Yikes! Walking robo-dolls.

All these dolls house a complex array of servos, sensors, chips, and the software needed to make everything work in a way that mimics a real biological response, more or less. Millions of dollars, of course, are being spent on R&D and production. I think the question is, do we need these? Or more to the point, do kids need these?

What's the relationship between kids and technology-or what should it be?

Just this week a group calling itself Alliance for Childhood published a report that put forth the opinion that Clifford Stoll has been advocating for years: there's no benefit to having computers in the classroom, particularly in the early grades.2 Perhaps the money would be better spent on more teachers and, therefore, smaller classes.

In fact, the report's authors conclude "that computers pose serious health hazards to children and take away from the strong personal bonds with caring adults needed for meaningful education." 3 The group found that major health hazards can result from computer overuse at an early age, including repetitive stress injuries, eyestrain, obesity, social isolation, and, for some, long-term damage to physical, emotional, or intellectual development.

On the other had, many technology advocates argue that the tests being used to measure benefits to children are from the world of the "old economy." They argue that the tests aren't measuring abilities that computers can teach, i.e. keyboarding skills, understanding of online information searching and over-all computer use (how to manipulate a mouse, how to turn the computer on, and basic trouble-shooting). These computer and Internet skills will certainly be needed by the global citizens of tomorrow, but what is the right age to teach these skills to our young citizens?

In my mind there is an eerie conjunction between high tech toys, games, gadgets, and the discipline of robotics.

Last month professionals in the field of robotics gathered at MIT for Humanoid 2000. 4 Before the Brandeis University team had managed to program a robot to reproduce other robots, members of the Humanoid conference, on a scale of 0 for unlikely to 5 for highly likely, rated the possibility that robots "will be the next step in evolution and will eventually replace humans" at a zero.

Conference organizer Dr. Alois Knoll of the University of Bielefeld in Germany said of current robots and robotic technology, "We don't have mechanical dexterity. We don't have the power supply. We don't have the brains. We don't have the emotions." And Dr. Hans P. Moravec, principal research scientist at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, says he doesn't think robot babies will manage to take over Toys "R" Us, much less the world. "The intelligence that you put into them at this point is insect-like, and people get bored with insects."

On the other hand, Moravec is famous for offering the opinion that "these [intelligent robots] are our descendants. They are more or less in our image. The robots are us. The biology is no longer necessary."

So what are we teaching our children about technology and the natural world? In our fascination with anything new are we foisting techno-toys, electronic gadgets, video games, and computers onto our children at a time when they would be better served by simply playing outside.

Anyone who has worked with children, especially urban children, knows that most city kids are afraid of nature. They don't particularly like bugs and sleeping outside under the stars (generally not visible in a city's yellow-glow) is not their idea of fun. I have a friend who is the mentor of an Oakland, CA teenager. She tries to spend some time with him every month hiking in Tilden Park or on some of the hilly trails around the San Francisco Bay Area. One day he actually said to her, "I don't like trees. They scare me." This is a kid who's perfectly happy with a joystick in his hand or with the latest Eminem CD blasting in his ear.

What I'm trying to say is, look, technology is good for lots of things. I love technology. I can't live for more than an hour without checking my email. I use the Internet for research every day, and it saves me countless hours. But let's not forget that our children are basically unformed, waiting for us to guide them and shape their values and help them figure out what is important.

How can technology be put to its 'highest and best' use if we don't make choices about it? And how do we make those choices? I'm not saying let's make it illegal to produce robo-dolls. I'm saying let's pay attention to raising our kids so that they have values that guide them to choices that are healthy, ethical, environmentally sound, and not harmful to others.

When I got too old to play much with Raggedy-Ann, I used to go out into the backyard and just lay in the sun watching the swallowtails. Ken Ramaley, Laura's husband and an entomologist, made me a butterfly net and showed me how to humanely put a butterfly to sleep so that I could study its markings and look at its legs under a microscope.

I used to run down the long rows of tomatoes in their garden to find them and announce at the top of my lungs that they must read my latest 'novella' about my pet parakeet or a discourse on our cocker spaniel. Talk about strong personal bonds with caring adults who provided a setting for meaningful education. I was lucky.

Is it just nostalgia that tells me that my childhood, supported by adults with a connection to nature who made things with their hands, is better than a childhood where kids sit clicking in front of computers or playing with robo-dolls?

We must decide.

b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher, and President of Axioun Communications International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA; the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her at


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