Elmo was pushed


I’ve always wondered about toys for young children that mimic the behavior of living things. Is this a good thing, or does it teach (on some basic level) indifference to the pain of others?

Take this video for example: A cute toddler repeatedly throws a talking Elmo doll onto the floor or into its box. Would this child do the same to an animal or to an infant, or does he clearly identify this thing as a inanimate toy? And if so, why bother making it talk and produce a broad range of contextually appropriate responses? Just to annoy the parents? (Any toy that makes sound will quickly drive the parents nuts.)

The bigger techno-cultural question is how will increasingly life-like responses from inanimate objects affect our attitudes toward other beings? Are we more likely to wind up agonizing about hurting our toaster’s feelings, or  have a higher incidence of psychopathy?

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  1. It ‘s an interesting question. Those I’d note that a more life-like response from a toy under attack would be fight or flight, as anyone who watched the Toy Story movies would know. Somehow I don’t think we’ll see toys that fight back, at least not without significant changes to how they’re regulated. :-)

  2. I agree that Elmo isn’t behaving like a real baby, but then its indifference to violence perpetrated against it is also somewhat troubling. That’s the problem with these things: if you make them too life-like, you get into undesirable behaviors on the part of the toy; if you make them oblivious, you get into undesirable behaviors on the part of the boy.

  3. Well, my daughter (a fair bit younger) tosses plush cat dolls around, including one that makes an assortment of life-like noises and movements. But she is much more cautious around real cats–and it’s not like she’s ever had any experiences to teach her such caution. So I suspect it’s actually pretty hard to trick a child into confusing animate and inanimate objects.

  4. I think I am trying to make a slippery-slope argument that as our technological capability improves, it will be progressively easier to make more and more life-like toys. I wonder if at some point, we may cross a line where it is difficult for the naive to tell the two apart.

  5. mark says:

    This the Barbie debate all over again. Turns out most girls beat, strangle, drop and otherwise mutilate their barbies no matter what the liberal-feminist hordes would have you believe. Small toddlers have no empathy yet. They would (and as older toddlers do) readily abuse living things.

    Empathy, and later on propriety are the things that keep (most of) us from setting. Kittens on fire to see what happens. Sometimes a toy is just a toy.

    My 18-month-old will mimic activities we undertake with her, playing the parental role to her doll (holding her hands to walk her, bathing, carrying, tickling, playing patty-cake etc.) one moment and then proceed to ‘abuse’ her the next because she has not developed the ability to project likely outcomes nor empathize with them. As kids get older they do become more protective of the ‘humanoid’ toys (especially of their siblings abusing them) as they develop these skills.

    On the other hand, do this experiment: check out the you tube video of “bigdog”. This is a semi-autonomous four-legged walking robot with an incredibly lifelike gait. Observe in yourself (or better yet, in your others) the reaction to the researchers trying to kick the robot off balance, or the robot trying to keep from falling on ice. Even the aforementioned 18-month-old is fascinated by watching bigdog and will do this again and again.

    I think this points to the fact that with properly developed and socialized humans will always empathize with anything we perceive as relatively helpless (children, small furry mammals). At the same time, we are repulsed by things that try to mimic adults; look at some videos of Asimo (no facial features) and compare your feelings towards it vs some of the more humanized robots out there.

  6. Mark, I agree with your post in general. I have seen the bigdog video you refer to. I am just wondering how the progressive increase in fidelity of the toys will affect people’s ability to comprehend the animate vs. inanimate distinction in the future.

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