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Friday, January 11, 2008

Stupid Smart Toys

“Oh, those strange robots!”

Tyler’s mother wasn’t too happy about buying yet another toy of the Smartbot line. The little plastic people – about the size of a human hand – weren’t too expensive individually, but the whole marketing concept of the line was cleverly aimed at convincing kids to get more models as time went on. Each Smartbot came equipped with a basic module for learning small tasks, understanding basic language and reacting to kids’ orders; walking, and walking around obstacles, climbing, jumping. Added to that, each particular model series had a module for a single advanced ability.

The Tennis Smartbot was able to hit a ball against the wall, see it bounce off, and hit it again, playing an eternal game of tennis with either itself or another Tennis Smartbot. The Answer Smartbot was capable of answering all sorts of questions from the fields of geography, science, history. Hand the Artist Smartbot a set of color pencils and a piece of paper, and it would go on and paint the immediate surrounding scenery.

Now, as Tyler and his mom stood before the rattling boxes in the kids’ store, Mom was feeling the widening generation gap (toys were sure different in her time!). A little plastic window in each box was offering a glance at how the model performed its abilities, live, for hours on end – it almost looked like there was a living being trapped inside. Just last week, Mom read about a campaign by the Artificial Intelligence Rights Group who battled against the selling of extra smart toys. Smartbot Inc. countered with the usual public statement that each bot was “limited by design” to only show “truly artificial” intelligence without signs of “real intelligence.” By limiting each model to just a single advanced capability, the company said, even “sparks of actual human intelligence” were prevented.

In short, Smartbots didn’t have wants, needs, self-reflection or soul, the company argued. They were lower beings merely reacting to orders – the orders of kids. Stupid smart toys.

“Tyler, look over there, those toy figures are much cheaper but they look just as nice!”


Tyler was shouting now, both out of frustration and the need to make his voice heard through the continued rattling, squeaking, bumping and shaking coming from the Smartbot toy shelf. Looking at the other toy line his face turned into a grimace. “Those are dumb toys ’n’ they don’t know anything!!”

But today Mom wasn’t allowing herself to invest another dime in the ever-growing line of Smartbots – they were making fools out of consumers, she thought, and inspired uninspirational gaming for kids – and opted for a cheaper, more static toy instead. The kind that was able to utter “ouch!” when you dropped it on the floor and “thanks!” when you patted its head, but that would occasionally say “thanks!” when you dropped it on its head. “Dumb,” as Tyler would call it.

Returning home, that dumb bot, freshly acquired, quickly found itself being thrown into a far corner of Tyler’s room, remaining there to be ignored from now on. Tyler, mildly annoyed, returned to his two Smartbots. While older, they were still so much more fascinating. Climber Smartbot was still tackling the uphill battle of the table leg, utilizing his little plastic climbing axe and small rope. Answer Smartbot (a good introductory buy of the Smartbot line as kids were able to tell their parents of the great educational value of this plastic figurine!) was sitting on the table, patiently waiting to be asked a question, and watching Climber Smartbot make its way up. Answer Smartbot’s little toy head stare seemed to express a mix of sophistication and arrogance, perhaps aimed at the climbing bot, or the world in general.

But Tyler turned frustration into creative energy when he sat down to study the Smartbot manual again. Just recently he read on his favorite, but wholly unofficial Smartbot community forum, that each bot’s brain was actually the same piece of hardware... but that parts of the software were simply locked for consumers. If only he could unlock the parts of his Smartbots that would play tennis, or speed run, or swim in the bath tub, or sing, or paint, Tyler figured, he would pretty much have all the toy models he wanted.

In the coming weeks, as soon as Tyler returned home from school (his favorite subjects were internet, web design and programming), he would shut his door. Until Mom called for evening dinner, he’d get online to study all kinds of bot hacking guides, Smartbot tips, and official documents he could get his hands on.

The key to success, he quickly realized, was in the Smartbot update routine. Smartbot Inc. included an automated software upgrade routine with every robotic brain in case any error would be discovered in the line. After all, no mom or dad would want want their children’s little toy to tinker with, say, scissors or lighters due to malfunctioning. Every midnight, the toys would look for a wireless connection to phone home asking if there was an upgrade available, downloading and installing it if necessary.

“Good night Tyler, sleep well!” Dad shouted from the living room below. Tyler wasn’t planning on sleeping anytime soon though. Tonight at midnight, he planned on intercepting the Smartbot upgrade routine. Tonight, he would try and unlock the model’s true capabilities. Thanks to a hacking framework Tyler downloaded and then adapted in hours of programming labor, he would make sure the robot’s algorithms would consider his particular tweak to be part of a normal security upgrade. Mom would be proud... oh, how much money Tyler would save his parents!

Five minutes past midnight, Tyler was unsure if his programming trickery had done its job on Answer Smartbot (Climber Smartbot had been disabled by Tyler in the meantime – he would be hacked tomorrow alright!). The robotic timer would always prevent any Smartbot action during night to prevent kids from staying up late. Tyler would have to wait until the next morning to see if anything had changed with the robot, so he finally and quietly went to bed.

If things went right, Tyler thought with a smile, he had managed – as the first kid in the world, nonetheless, and oh the Smartbot forum members would be proud of him! – to unlock and interconnect all brain modules within a single Smartbot.

Tyler slept uneasily that night. As was often the case, he was dreaming of being around his Smartbots, only that they were talking to him like true human friends, saying things much smarter than usual. His mind, imaginative as always during dream time, was extrapolating their basic intelligence into a self-aware soul. Answer Smartbot appeared, too; knocking on Tyler’s head with his multi-functional plastic hands, he would stare at Tyler, mutter the word “Freedom!”... and leave again.

It was 7 in the morning when Tyler’s alarm clock rang. Tyler found himself freezing as he got up to look for Answer Smartbot.

But the bot was nowhere to be found. Something else was weird: the window to the outside was open. Tyler was still sleepy, but lucid enough to be confident he didn’t open it last night. Walking towards the window, he noticed Climber Smartbot’s rope dangling from the inside of the window pane down to the carpet. Climber Smartbot was still lying on the floor, motionless and disabled as he was left last night – “What’s going on?” Tyler wondered, now shaking from the cold.

Tyler leaned half-way over the window pane, carefully, to look down the five floors.

No, Mom wouldn’t be too happy about this after all. Down there in the stone courtyard was Answer Smartbot, his plastic body, metal inside and silicone brain shattered to – what a mess! – hundreds of tiny, colorful pieces.

Still freezing, Tyler closed the window.


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