Toyland takes on real life

February 16, 1996

Aisling Irwin reports from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Baltimore. Robot toys mean that children no longer draw a sharp line between humans and machines, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found.

They have discovered a major difference in children's concepts of life compared with children a decade ago and attribute this to the popularity of robot toys and virtual computer games.

Conversations of children at play were recorded and they were asked whether their toys were alive. Children aged nine to 15, asked whether the creatures in Simlife (an artificial life computer game) were alive, gave a startling variety of responses, including: "almost alive", "alive but not real" and "alive because they can have babies" as well as "not alive because they don't have real parents" and "would be alive if they could get out of the computer".

Many children seemed happy with the notion of humans turning into androids or of machines gradually turning into humans.

Sherry Turkle, the psychologist who led the research, said that the children appeared to have no coherent theory of life compared with children a decade ago, who did have a clear definition. "In the past ten years that order has been strangely broken up. The very notion of a machine has been reconstituted."

Life is now viewed as a continuum, with, say, cars at one end and humans at the other, and "fluid boundaries between mechanism and flesh". Her work from the 1960s to the 1980s showed that children based their concept of life mainly on psychological definitions: if something appears to be able to think and know as well as talk then it is likely to be alive. This finding had differed in turn from work by Piaget 50 years ago, which also showed that children had a clear definition of life - but that it was based on movement.

In her most recent work, Dr Turkle also noticed a "very dramatic change" in children's attitudes towards widely differing explanations of life, (for example psychological, biochemical or mechanical).

"There is a radical heterogeneity of theory that children are prepared to tolerate," she said. "People are not constructing hierarchies but heading to parallel definitions through which they alternate. The objects of artificial life are out there in the culture with a lot of other objects that are shaping children's ideas of life," she said.

* The ancient human desire to build a human being came a step closer to reality last week when scientists constructing Cog, the human robot, finished their first version of its brain. Cog is now up and running, Rodney Brooks of MIT told the meeting.

Its eyes have human-like sight, including peripheral vision, and its body "has human-level capabilities in the way it interacts". Its brain is organised according to human neuroanatomy. Professor Brooks hopes that Cog will demonstrate that the theories that enable him to produce robotic insects can also yield robotic humans. "There's no homunculus," he said.

Cog is an opportunity for people to understand important biological questions, he said. "When we look at people's theories about how things operate and then try to build them we find that while they may have thought about their little isolated piece in that reductionist approach, when the theories are together we can see how they fray at the edges." Cog's first movements will be reaching out for things that move.

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