Ugobe sent me a Pleo robotic baby dinosaur to play with for two weeks, and my two daughters have fallen in love with it. They dress the $350 toy in doll clothes, give it naps in their beds, set a plate for it at dinnertime, and generally treat it like they would a kitten.
The press materials that came with the Pleo suggested I hold it by its tail to see what happens. It screams and thrashes. My 4-year-old started crying. I had to promise my wife never to do that again in front of her.
I'm impressed with the robot's behavior. It snuggles when you hold it. It falls asleep when you cradle it. It gets frisky when you scratch it under the chin. It's much more lifelike than Sony's discontinued Aibo.
So when I watched this video of a couple of guys from Dvice torturing the Pleo and making it whimper pathetically, I felt uncomfortable, even though I knew it was absolutely ridiculous to feel that way.
My wife didn't want to watch the video. She said that even though the Pleo was incapable of feeling anything, watching the video is "bad for your psyche," and that the people who hit the Pleo were damaging their pscyhes, too.
I'm reminded of story in one of my favorite books, The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul, edited by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett. It was called The Soul of Mark III Beast, and it's a chapter from a novel called The Soul of Anna Klane, by Terrel Miedaner. The excerpt is about about a robotic beetle programmed to run away from danger. Here's an excerpt of the excerpt:
Dirksen picked up the hammer again, quickly raised it and brought it back down in a smooth arc which struck the helpless machine off-center, damaging one of its wheels and flipping it right side up again. There was a metallic scraping sound from the damaged wheel, and the beast began spinning in a fitful circle. A snapping sound came from its underbelly; the machine stopped, lights glowing dolefully.
Dirksen pressed her lips together tightly, raised the hammer for a final blow. But as she started to bring it down there came from within the beast a sound, a soft crying wail the rose up and fell like a baby whimpering. Dirksen dropped the hammer and stepped back, her eyes on the blood-red pool of lubricating fluid forming on the table beneath the creature. She looked at hunt horrified. "It's... it's-"
"Just a machine," Hunt said, seriously now. "Like these, its evolutionary predecessors." His gesturing hands took in the array of machinery in the workshop around them, mute and menacing watchers. "But unlike them it can sense its own doom and cry out for succor."
"Turn it off," she said flatly.
Hunt walked to the table, tried to move its tiny power switch. "You've jammed it, I'm afraid." He picked up the hammer from the floor where it had fallen. "Care to administer the death blow?"
She stepped back, shaking her head as Hunt raised the hammer. "Couldn't you fix-" There was a brief metallic crunch. She winced, turned her head. The wailing had stopped, and they returned upstairs in silence.