Birth of the Robot Baby

Can Yotaro, the Japanese cyber-infant, really teach prospective parents about raising a newborn? Lisa Grunwald on the electronic practice child.

Can Yotaro, the Japanese cyber-infant, really teach prospective parents about raising a newborn? Lisa Grunwald, author of The Irresistible Henry House: A Novel, on the electronic practice child.

Its spooky moon-pie face glows from the cradle like a radioactive Cabbage Patch Kid’s. A hand reaches out to touch its cheek, which dimples and twists in apparent pleasure. Yotaro, the new Japanese robot baby, is a marvel of computer simulation, even if the people brilliant enough to create it couldn’t find a simple English translation of its functions. According to the subtitles on its explanatory video, “Yotaro is a robot which you can experience physical contact like as with real baby.”

The idea behind Yotaro is exactly the opposite of the idea behind the RealCare Baby, an American counterpart. In Japan, where the birth rate is falling at an alarming pace, Yotaro is intended to show citizens (one wonders in what context) just how beguiling, responsive, and rewarding babies can be. Which may be why the only bodily fluid emanating from Yotaro is the warm water that comes from its eyes and nose now and then. (No crusting, no chafing, nothing green, no need to use one of those squeegee things that suck your child’s face in, don’t get me started.)

The only bodily fluid emanating from Yotaro is the warm water that comes from its eyes and nose now and then.

In the United States, where birth rarely takes a holiday, the RealCare doll (a.k.a. Baby Think It Over) cries at random intervals, can be comforted only by its assigned caretaker, must be held with support for its head and neck, and must be diapered and fed day and night. Now we’re talkin’ virtual.

But whether they’re used for persuasion or deterrence, it’s hard to believe that any cyber-infant can have the intended effect. Don’t you have to know, on some level, that the doll is just a doll and that, at least in the case of Yotaro, you can actually reach down and unplug the thing?

All this roboparenting reminds me of that Japanese digital keychain pet called Tamagotchi. It was born in 1996, the same year that my son was, and I remember not understanding what all the panic was about if “feeding time” was missed. The toy would eventually stop functioning, it was explained to me. What I kept thinking was: Promise?

And will any of it actually work? Dr. Sandra Leong, an NYU psychoanalyst and writer, notes “Whether the attachment to the cyberorganism can lead to the desire for rich human attachment is questionable. Certainly, it's believed that children are stimulated in that way by owning and expressing themselves with dolls. In adults, well, it depends on the adult. Stimulating the imagination and unconscious through play can result in growth and change, but in a mind too burdened by anxiety, fetish can result, meaning an attachment to the surrogate object instead.” (Indeed, the recent horrific report of a South Korean couple who were arrested for starving their infant daughter while they were busy raising a virtual child in an online role-playing game seems to bear out Dr. Leong’s theory.)

All this might make a gal long for the good old days, when virtual parenting did not depend on virtual babies, but on real ones. Under the category of strange-but-true, it turns out that college students throughout the middle part of the last century were taught mothering skills in home-economics programs around the country. At Iowa State University, for example, starting in 1924, every senior home-ec student was required to care for a real baby in one of the practice houses on campus. Infants were borrowed from orphanages or hospitals and cared for on a rotating basis by super-serious students who were, in the spirit that the makers of Yotaro might have welcomed, attempting to apply scientific principles to one of the least scientific aspects of human life.

When I saw a photograph of an orphan called Bobby Domecon (“Domecon” for “Domestic” and “Economics”), who arrived at Cornell’s program in 1920, I had to wonder whatever happened to him—and wrote a novel about it. As in other programs, motherhood took place on rotation. Though practice mothers really did get a sense—however temporary—of real responsibility, practice babies never got a sense of real security. Handed off from one to the next, they could grow up charming but untrusting, capable of feigning affection but far less capable of feeling it; they could grow up, in short, with what we now call Attachment Disorder.

So is there any way to prepare? If it’s unrealistic to use toys and unethical to use babies, what’s a would-be-mother to do? Caring for a pet probably comes closest to the experience of caring for a baby. There’s work, there’s play, there’s mess, there’s food, there’s not being able to do exactly what you want when you want to do it. This may be why dogs and cats are so often called people's “practice babies.” But I have to say, as someone who’s taken care of both dogs and babies, that there’s really no way to simulate what the Yotaro video so memorably calls “human’s peculiar characteristics.”

Like motherhood.

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Lisa Grunwald is the author of the novels The Irresistible Henry House, Whatever Makes You Happy, New Year's Eve, The Theory of Everything, and Summer. Along with her husband, Stephen J. Adler, she edited the anthologies Women's Letters and Letters of the Century. Grunwald is a former contributing editor of Life and former features editor of Esquire.