Bridge-building game

This robot cat is creeping me out

I first saw this cat in the current issue of Wired, and was immediately creeped out.

Technically, I ought to love the FurReal cat. It brings together two things I hold most dear — cats and robots! I love ‘em both. I have two cats and, frankly, not enough robots in my life.

But the thing is, I want my robots to look like robots. Consider this comment by the head of the toy division department of the Fashion Institute of Technology, in today’s Circuits section:

“You don’t want the technology in a toy to be visible,” said Judy Ellis, the chairwoman of the toy design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “The first robot pets were very cool-looking, but a child doesn’t relate to a shiny surface. A child can relate to a furry cat.”

Speak for yourself! I grew up waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for computer technology to get cheap enough, and to rock hard enough, that I could finally have a personal robot. I watched all the craptastic B movies and I craved to own a shiny little tin-can like R2D2 that would follow me around. Or maybe something like Doctor Who’s K-9. That’s what a robot pet is supposed to look like, people!

But suddenly the future arrives … and it’s wrapped in fur. Ew. I mean, the whole point of a robot-looking robot is that its alien-ness is a technique almost like Russian formalism; it makes the world strange, the better to help us understand humanity. A shiny metal robot is a mirror in which we reflect upon our human-ness. (Plus, you can program it to bring you a beer and shit.)

So the idea of wanting robots to seem like natural living creatures? That’s straight out of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a nasty little dystopia. In that book, some hideous war-related fallout — sufficiently grim that Dick never explains what it is — has killed off so many life-forms that only the insanely rich can afford to own actual live pets. Everyone else makes do with animatronic cats and dogs and hens and cows — and then tries desperately to pretend to their friends that the animals are real. It’s just about the most depressing book I’ve ever read in my life. And now Hasbro’s basing a marketing campaign on the idea.

I’m going to bed.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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