The digital heart of a Camarasaurus

The saying “Deceive boys with toys, but men with oaths” is attributed to Lysander, who commanded the Spartan fleet who thrashed the Athenians (themselves great seafarers) in 405 BC. Lysander ended up as the victorious conqueror of Athens. Lysander, prided himself on his cunning and witty approach to his tasks boasted of his ability to cheat his enemies.

Wikipedia has another version of the boast – “With dices, we cheat the boys. With oaths, we cheat the men”, Lysander refers to youth’s passion with gambling while older people use litigation to acquire wealth. Both, he admitted, can be easily manipulated.

Today, however, it is obvious that both boys and men love their toys (as do girls and women) — technology enables people of all ages to use a myriad of gadgets – from cellphones to GPS, cars to play stations. Ubergizmo is a very prolific, successful, blog that is dedicated to such gadgets, it was during a visit to Ubergizmo that I met Pleo.

Pleo is a Camarasaurus (“a late-Jurassic North American herbivore, 60 feet long in adulthood“), – it is also a robot. The aspect of Pleo that got my attention, is his ability to operate as a pseudo-living thing – Pleo has emotions, he shows clear signs of awareness of stimuli: he’s got senses, such as tactile capabilities and light awareness, drives, such as hunger and sleepiness, and communication skills, such as making sounds and posturing in order to show how he feels. Pleo evolves – hatching from an egg, going through early steps as an infant and then as a juvenile. The robot has numerous behavioural capabilities, from being ticklish to getting in trouble, from singing and playing around, to acrobatics and being a watch-dog. Pleo depends of the ‘training’ he’s getting from the human who ‘fosters’ him.

At the core of Pleo’s existence is a complex Operating System known as UGOBE Life OS – “the complex platform of tools and technologies that enable Pleo’s mechanical, electronic, sensory, and AI systems to interact as a lifelike whole.” — the robot has its own infra red receiver and transmitter, in order to facilitate communication, an interruptor, designed to detect when something is put in the robot’s mouth, a chin touch sensor, allowing Pleo to react to touch. He has ground, leg, touch, force feedback, rear touch and shoulder touch sensors, allowing Pleo to ‘experience’ the world around him physicality. Look here for a full list of tools under Pleo’s Life OS.

Ubergizmo reports that the latest Life OS upgrade can be downloaded online and installed inside Pleo. Latest improvements include the ability to change moods and emotions, based on interactivity with ‘his’ human, ability to sit, you can pat his chin and coax him to sing (new melodies added.) In addition, Pleo may get sick from time to time (let’s see you trying to make your Camarasaurus a dependent on your Medical Aid scheme!) The manufacturers warn you that “your Pleo will feel lethargic for several minutes after being updated, so pet him out of his misery or he’ll enter digital depression” and then downhill to digital Prozac, perhaps?

Pleo is not cheap – it is offered on a list price of $349.99, and had it on sale for $279.95 (add shipment and applicable taxes). One could ask why spend all that money on an electronic toy when any local animal shelters explodes with unwanted, soon to be destroyed, animals? Why would one prefer to interact with a well designed hip of digital chips rather than share one’s time and love with a real living being?

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ short story “Supertoys Last All Summer LongArtificial Intelligence: AI (2001) has the tagline – “David is 11 years old. He weighs 60 pounds. He is 4 feet, 6 inches tall. He has brown hair. His love is real. But he is not.” Taking over from legendary film director Stanley Kubrick – who was to direct the movie but died before he started shooting the film, Spielberg wrote and directed a story about a future filled with robots who can do anything for you, but not love.

David, a robot designed to have emotions and feel love, is adopted by an engineer and his wfie who’s own child is desperately ill. They treat David as their own child, until their real child gets well. David is abandoned, it is now up to him to try and understand his predicament.

The movie asks (although not always answers) some fundamental questions about the way humans treat those whom they consider inhuman. Even though he is a machine, a wonder of technology, David can feel, he can experience abandonment and rejection, loneliness and – maybe most shockingly clear in this movie – dispair. It can be that, as boys grow up and replace their toys with oaths, they harden and lose the unique love a child has for his toys.

The ethical question is not whther we can live in peace and harmoney with technologically produced being, but rather if we would ever want to.

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