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"Thinking" Toys

Toys that know you: here is an idea neither ahead of its time nor ten years too late, but which is right now perfectly, brilliantly ripe. Technologically, computers are just becoming small enough, powerful enough, and -- with the recent popularization of wireless infrared links -- communicative enough to fit anywhere and to record or transmit virtually anything. Economically, here are two separate industries, toys and computers, with impressive sales figures and large pools of creative talent, but also with flagging growth. Merge the two and suddenly you have a new market with a constantly replenishing source of fresh consumers and a pace of change speedy enough to attain that sublime condition of planned obsolescence. Venture capitalists spend their vacation days on the beaches of Cozumel fantasizing about synergies like this. Attaching microchips to squishy stuff is likely to make a lot of people very, very rich.

The computerization of toys also dovetails nicely with the ambitions of computer evangelists, those whose life's mission it is to deliver the power of computation into every aspect of every person's life. Nicholas Negroponte, the director of MIT's famously innovative Media Laboratory (the Vatican of techno-evangelism), noted last year in his Wired column that toys are the "fastest evolving vehicles on the infobahn," meaning that because of their astonishing turnover rate (each year, 75 percent of the toys on shelves are newly designed), they're the only class of objects that can truly keep up with the rapid pace of hardware and software innovation. That, combined with the tantalizing prospect of winning young, impressionable children over to the virtues of computers, has catapulted toy technology into high-priority status

The Media Lab is a Willy Wonka factory for technophiles, where the only limitations are in the creators' imaginations. Intoxicated by the MIT fumes, one thinks: How could this not be a boon to society?

for the Media Lab. While researchers there have been exploring the issue for decades, they substantially upped the ante earlier this year with the formation of an industry-research consortium called "Toys of Tomorrow." A dozen or so companies, including Mattel, Tomy, Intel, and Bandai (makers of the infamous Tamagotchi "virtual pets"), have signed up, committing to at least three years of the $250,000 annual sponsorship fee. In return for the funding (a modest R&D investment for any sizable company), sponsors get first crack at the new technology and ideas -- a head start that seems bound ultimately to be worth many times that sum.

The promotional literature for Toys of Tomorrow is suffused with condescension toward objects (and their owners) still stuck in an analog world. "The digital revolution will transform the world of toys and play," the official TOT Web brochure boasts. "Old toys will become smarter. New toys will become possible. All toys will become connected. There will be new ways of playing, designing, learning, storytelling. When a Cray becomes a Crayola, when a teddy bear sends a hug halfway around the world, when the beads on a child's necklace communicate with one another to make lights sparkle or music sound, we will be playing with the toys of tomorrow." Media Lab researchers are experimenting with a wide variety of wearable, musical, and communicative prototypes, and don't seem in any particular hurry to bring half-baked ideas to market. Most won't see the light of retail shelves for years.

One product, though, made its debut alongside the three Microsoft ActiMates dolls at last year's Toy Fair: the Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System. The result of more than ten years of (pre-consortium) collaboration between the Media Lab and the Lego Company, Lego Mindstorms is an advanced set of Lego bricks with motors, gears, and built-in sensors (light, touch, and infrared) that are coordinated by a small, mobile "programmable brick" computer brain. "You can build and program robotic inventions systems that move and think on their own," the promotional literature promises.

legorcx picture
   The computer that controls
   the Lego Mindstorms

Mindstorms works much like any toy construction kit, with the additional component of some very basic computer programming. A child conceives an idea for a particular type of Lego-based robot (one that will deal playing cards to a certain number of players sitting around a table, for example, or that will "look" for a hockey goal and then shoot the puck), then assembles the bricks and gears into the desired structure, and programs the controlling brick by dragging and dropping icons using PC software. (The program is downloaded from PC to the Lego robot via infrared signal.) The project was originally inspired by Seymour Papert, a founding member of the Media Lab whose 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, is an impassioned treatise on how computers will enhance the intellectual development of children.

Mitchel Resnick, a forty-two-year-old associate professor at MIT and a protégé of Papert's, was the lead developer of the Lego Mindstorms prototype and is one of the principals behind the Toys of Tomorrow project. When I visited Resnick at the Media Lab in Cambridge, his third-floor office was stuffed with so many large computer boxes that it was almost impossible to get inside. The cluster of hardware, Resnick explained, was earmarked for a major new exhibit at Boston's Computer Museum, called Virtual Fishtank. The exhibit, underwritten by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, allows visitors to create and interact with schools of computer-generated fish, which are programmed to react to the movement of people in front of the screen and to gobble up virtual food when it is "released" by onlookers. The fish also interact with one another in complex ways by following a few simple behavioral rules.

Virtual Fishtank is illustrative of Resnick's two overarching beliefs in the virtues of introducing computers to young children: (1) that computers can help kids understand dynamic systems in a way that traditional materials cannot; and (2) that the way to achieve these new levels of understanding is through creative design and construction. "Traditional toys are good for young kids if they're trying to make sense of fundamental ideas like number, shape, scale, and color," Resnick says. "But there are other concepts having to do with the dynamics of the world -- how things interact, how things change over time -- that they aren't so good for. It's wonderful for kids to build all kinds of sculpture just with broken combs and forks and everyday items. It's harder to build behaviors with everyday materials. We emphasize using the computational materials where they give you leverage in dealing with things that involve some type of motion or interaction."

While his mentor Papert has made a career out of trying to convince people that computers will enormously expand the geometric thinking of human beings by provoking a mathematical curiosity at an early age, Resnick seems most interested in the proposition that cleverly designed machines can, paradoxically, help kids to better understand the complex dynamics of living things. "Let's say you're interested in how animals behave," Resnick says. "With modeling clay, or sand, or Lego bricks, you could build a model of a bunny rabbit. But the bunny rabbit is just going to sit there. You can make it look like a bunny rabbit, but you can't make it behave like a bunny rabbit. If you watch two rabbits playing with each other, you'll see there's a type of dance between them. How is it that they come to that dance? How is it that animals behave?"

Both the Lego robots and the Virtual Fishtank enable kids to confront these questions through creative design, Resnick argues. To demonstrate, he puts a couple of Legobots on the floor between us, a few inches apart from each other. At first they're completely immobile. "They look like they're not doing very much, but in fact they're sending out signals, and if they happen to see each other, they go into a little dance." As he says this, the two Legobots do "recognize" each other and start to jig back and forth. "Now, I don't think it would be very interesting to give these to kids as ready-made toys. That might be interesting for a few minutes, but it doesn't seem like a very deep play or learning experience. What's interesting is when kids can build up things like this. A child will say, 'I want the white one to tell the red one to start dancing.' He'll program that in, but then nothing will happen. So he'll say, 'Oh, the red one doesn't know how to dance, so I'll have to teach it.' When kids are going through that sort of activity, they're thinking about how to communicate. The hope here is that by building up their own communication models, kids start thinking about these ideas."

With his squinty smile, earnest intensity, and boyishly curly black hair, Resnick is both disarming and persuasive. He's so clearly trying to convince rather than sell that one is tempted to allow his sincerity to pass for proof. A similar feeling of indulgence follows a Media Lab visitor around on a tour, during which machines consistently seem to defy reality: coffee makers that recognize you by your magnetically encoded mug and customize your beverage accordingly; jean jackets with paper-thin music synthesizers sewn into the denim; wireless badges that communicate and keep track of social interactions; holograms that can be felt in three dimensions; bit-mapped lightbulbs that cast designer shadows on a room. From the Herman Miller office chairs to the Jell-O-filled cloth instrument balls that produce different rhythms and intonations depending on how they are pulled and squeezed (one of many child instruments in development), the Media Lab is a Willy Wonka factory for technophiles, where the only limitations are in the creators' imaginations. Here computing not only transcends number-crunching, it also makes inanimate objects "think." Intoxicated by the MIT fumes, one thinks: How could this not be a boon to society?

In between Wows!, though, I'm trying to remember that, like Wonka's sensational chocolate treats, these fantastic new devices for children can distract us from what ought to be our ultimate goal -- improving the quality of our kids' lives, not just injecting more fun into them. Sherry Turkle, a prominent techno-sociologist also at MIT, argues that technology is fast propelling us into an entirely new paradigm of child development. "Today's children are growing up with 'psychological machines,'" she told The New York Times last June. "They have become accustomed to the idea that objects that are not alive might nonetheless have a psychology and even consciousness." If Turkle is correct, the critical question becomes: Do toys that think -- or pretend to think -- also spur our children to think?

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David Shenk, the author of Data Smog (1997), lives in Brooklyn. A collection of his essays on science and technology will be published next fall.

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