Robot Toys

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Robots combine sensors, computation, and motors to interact intelligently with their environment. Robot toys need to be so cheap and robust that they can be used as playthings. While there is a long history of toys that look like robots, only recently has the cost of computation dropped sufficiently to allow the sale of truly functional robotic toys. This entry focuses on three examples of this new genre of toy that should be of interest from the ethics perspective: Lego MindStorms robot construction sets and Furby interactive robotic pet by Tiger Toys, and Sony Aibo robot dog.

Lego and Furby: Some Contrasts

These two very different kinds of robotic toys were both introduced in 1998, had a large impact, and contrast in several interesting ways. Lego MindStorms and Furby represent two types of toys that Gary Cross (1997) finds typical of twentieth century U.S. toy production: the educational and the novelty toy. Lego MindStorms Robotics Invention System extended the Lego Technic construction system to include a programmable computer controller brick (the RCX), sensors and motors, and computer interface and programming environment. Lavish documentation and support (reflecting a long nurturing by educators) allowed users to build a variety of working robots, ranging from traditional light-guided rovers to static room alarms. Although MindStorms was expensive, included more than 700 pieces, and required considerable assembly and a personal computer, it was nevertheless an immediate success with both children and adults. It became widely used in schools and colleges and has remained in production for a number of years.

By contrast Furby was a plush but inexpensive, stand-alone, interactive toy. Multiple sensors (light, touch, sound, infra-red) drove a single motor, which, via a series of ingenious cams, controlled several motions of the ears, eyes, eyelids, mouth, and rear body (Pesce 2000). Enormously popular in its first season, with long lines at toy stores and price premiums featured on TV news, more than 12 million Furbys were sold in one year. Yet just as quickly the fad passed and in the early twenty-first century Furbys are no longer produced.

Robotic toys fall into two groups: the programmable and the pre-programmed. MindStorms takes programmability to the limit: One can choose which of several general purpose programming languages to use. The Furby was pre-programmed.

Another contrast is in terms of transparency and openness. MindStorms was released as a normal, closed (although very well documented) product. That is, one could run its code but not change it except in predefined ways. After a brief struggle with fans and hackers, Lego agreed to release the technical specifications and allow programming access to the RCX's ROMs. As a result MindStorms became an extensible open-source system for constructing robots. Indeed it has become a platform for a large variety of languages and operating systems. By contrast Furby remained a closed system. It was pre-programmed and an epoxy blob hid its computational abilities and electronics. Moreover its capacities were not documented but shrouded in rumour and advertising hype, so it was difficult to know what the toy could actually do. Could Furbys really learn?


Interactive robotic toys raise special issues for ethics. First, robot toys face some special ethical requirements. As robots they interact with children in the real world, so they must be safe. Contrast virtual robot-building software such as the early Apple computer game RoboWar. Virtual battle robots can fire projectiles at each other in their on-screen arena without endangering people. Real robot toys are different: As programmed robots, they are capable of initiating unexpected actions; as toys they cannot be cordoned off from human contact in the way that real factory robots typically are.

Second, more subtly, robot toys face design challenges to keep contact with the real world fun and educational. The environment is a great teacher, providing feedback on feasible design for free. But the price can be costly; think of testing whether a Furby can swim or a Lego robot can navigate in sand. The ideal of a platform is helpful here (Danielson 1999). For example Mind-Storms pushes most electrical considerations down into the platform it provides. The connectors allow polarity to be reversed, but otherwise the user need not be aware of the electrical properties of the sensors and motors.

Third, interactive robotic toys may even change moral categories. Surprisingly Sherry Turkle has found that children categorize their Furbys in a new way: "Children describe these new toys as sort of alive because of the quality of their emotional attachments to the Furbies and because of their fantasies about the idea that the Furby might be emotionally attached to them" (Turkle 2000). These children appear to be assigning interactive toys to a third class, between the animate and the inanimate, because of how they interact with them. In a related development, robotic toy pets have been found useful in rehabilitation in Japan (Goodale 2001). These preliminary research results suggest that human relations with emotionally evocative and involving robotic companions will be ethically complex.


The third example, Sony's Aibo robotic dog, raises some additional contrasts and ethical issues. Aibo was introduced in 1999 in the United States and Japan. Although very expensive, it sold out in Japan "in just 20 minutes" (Yoshida 2001). Aibo has never sold very well outside of Japan. This difference points to Japan's distinctive history and culture with respect to robots in general and robotic toys in particular. While Aibo's price and sophistication place it with the Lego system, there was an ethically interesting contrast: When Aibo owners hacked its software in order to personalize and extend its capabilities, Sony reacted to block them and protect its intellectual property. Lego, in contrast, opened MindStorms by publishing its source code. Third, Aibo's advanced capabilities allow it to function as a pet much better than the much simpler Furby. Aibos' cognitive and moral status is thus much more ambiguous (see Turkle 1995, chap 3). On one side, the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims "the turn toward having robotic animals in place of real animals is a step in the right direction" (MacDonald 2004). But research on actual attitudes towards Aibo find that owners "rarely attributed moral standing" (Peter Kahn, Friedman, and Hagman 2002).

Future Developments

Robotic toys will become ever more sophisticated interactively. Furby, for instance, gave rise to the more capable and expensive Aibo. Robotic toys may thus be a mechanism for increasing the pace of ethically challenging technological change. The toy industry is well known for driving down costs, in order to sell large volume blockbusters. (Furby was brought to market in less than a year and at less than one-half the expected price point.)

In the wake of Furby, there thus exists an increasing number of young new users of a technology, acquired over a short time, along with the design and industrial capacity to make more of the next version very quickly. MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks, for example, has predicted that the first robots to establish a wide household presence will be robotic toys. This is a recipe for rapid technological and attitude change and little time for ethical reflection.


SEE ALSO Education;Entertainment;Popular Culture;Robots and Robotics; Safety Engineering: Practices.


Cross, Gary. (1997). Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Danielson, Peter. (1999). "Robots for the Rest of Us or for the 'Best' of Us." Ethics and Information Technology 1:77–83.

Goodale, Carol. (2001). "Researchers Study How Robots Interact with Children." IEEE Spectrum, November 2001.

MacDonald, G. Jeffrey. (2004). "If you Kick a Robotic Dog, Is It Wrong?" Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 05 2004.

Pesce, Mark. (2000). The Playful World : How Technology Is Transforming Our Imagination. New York: Ballantine Books.

Kahn, Peter, Jr., Batya Friedman, and Jennifer Hagman. (2002). "I care about him as a pal: Conceptions of Robotic Pets in Online AIBO Discussion Forums." Paper read at CHI 2002, at Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Turkle, Sherry. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Yoshida, Noriyuki. (2001). "Robot People and Robo Cats and Dogs." Look Japan, October 2001.


Turkle, Sherry. (2000). "A New Kind of Object: From Rorschach to Relationship." Available from