Wednesday, December 05, 2007

It's not just a bot, it's a fellow creature

We got the latest Sharper Image catalog last week, and they're urging us to shop for bots, leading off with the Jurassic pet, PLEO Life Form, which, they tell us, is ready for adoption. Pleo

I'll be the first to admit that this little, er, life form is mighty cute, with its:

...large, expressive, soulful eyes; nubbly organic skin; vocalizations of snuffles, snorts, honks, and coos; and more than 200 realistic biomorphic movements...

And PLEO is more than just another pretty dinosaur baby-face.

PLEO seems to feel and show emotion; he is aware of himself and his surroundings; and he evolves over time as he learns from countless interactions with his environment and with fellow creatures.

Oh, Brave New World!

Is a $349.95 PLEO Life Form by Ugobe really a fellow creature?

Cute, yes. Fun, yes. Funny, yes. Interesting, wildly - given that, we are told, "PLEO develops his own distinct personality, largely based on how he's treated and raised."

So, maybe this is a good thing. People can do nature vs. nurture experiments in their own living room without having to involve actual living, breathing children.

But what about those qualifiers:

A well-loved and nurtured PLEO may become outgoing and playful, while an oft-neglected PLEO may grown up more timid and reserved.

May become outgoing? May become timid and reserved?

You mean I can be really, really nice to my little PLEO and still find it's the bad seed? Could it turn Jeffrey Dahlmer and actually go after me?

And if I get of all those limb, eye, tail, neck, and head biomorphic movements under foot, and give the thing a good, swift kick in its biomorphic arse, it may still grovel over to me to lick my hand? Or turn into a sort of Jurassic Mother Theresa caring for PLEOs, fellow bots, and fellow creatures (goldfish, parakeet, rugrat)?

PLEO's are emotional little beasts, that's for sure,

...capable of expressing a wide range of emotions - happiness, sadness, anxiety, curiosity, moodiness, surprise, and love.

No, no, no-dee-no-no they aren't.

PLEO's can be programmed to mimic the expression of emotions. But unlike, say, a pet or an actual human, they can't actual express a true emotion. And, although I am a complete anthropomorphist - if there is even such a word - in my belief that many of our friends in the animal kingdom have rich, complex and interesting lives, with which (or whom) you can develop a rich, complex, and interesting emotional connection (at least on your side), they're not humans.

And a PLEO is one step removed from this equation: they're not even animals.

You will be amazed at how quickly you establish an emotional bond with this little creature; you will bask in the warmth of his wonderful companionship.

I can certainly see that there could be circumstances in which a PLEO would "break through" to someone with mental illness or some sort of emotional disorder in a way in which human beings or garden-variety animals could not. But I'd only resort to PLEO if those possibilities were exhausted.

And as for it being a "super smart" doll or stuffed animal? (Which is not in the "positioning" but is certainly implied.) Aren't kids better off using their imagination on an object that's more inert - and in their complete emotional and intellectual control?

Other than that, if you have $349.95 (plus S&H) so that you can amaze yourself with the cool technology and the "how do they do that's?", well, that's one thing.

But it's a pretty sad state of affairs if someone has to order a Life Form from Sharper Image so that you can "establish an emotional bond" with it. Just another ersatz, derivative "experience" for us to consume.

I hate to be such a downer before the holidays and all, but selling points are getting creepier and creepier. Is this the way the world ends, not with a bang but with the whimper of a PLEO Life Form?


If you'd like to read last year's crank on animatronics, here's my rant on Butterscotch the Pony.


John said...

It's not anthroporphizing (I'm sure that's spelled wrong) to think that animals have rich and real emotional lives; it's clear that they do, and zoologists (as well as pet owners) will tell you that. We're probably all off base when we try to interpret them as human emotions, but if you've ever had an animal in your home, you know that they can be happy, sad, bored, scared, angry, loving, etc.

I was reminded of this when one of the cats went missing a few days. The dogs clearly had an emotional response to it. Calling it "sad" or "missing them" would be a stretch, but their behavior changed, and when the cat returned, it changed back. I have no doubt that in a dog brain, there's a reaction to a familiar household member vanishing, though I won't try to describe it in human terms. (The net practical result was that upon returning, the cat got licked repeatedly until he hissed and swatted the pups away, and the pups became more lively.)

It's hard to imagine a robot dinosaur doing that.

Mary said...

Okay, it's cute. But I feel very, very sorry for anyone who buys one as a "pet." What an empty soul he or she must have if this appeals to them.

I'll take the real thing - hair, body fluids, excretions and all.