Jun 1, 2011

Furbidden Knowledge

In 1999, Freedom Baird was in grad school, and Furbies--those furry little robot toys that talk to you and tell you to play with them--were all the rage. So Freedom, who was thinking about becoming a mom someday, decided to get a little practice by adopting two gerbils and one Furby. And that led to a chance discovery...and an idea for an experiment that Freedom believed could serve as a kind of emotional Turing test, a way to ask whether machines are more alive than dolls.

In order to test Freedom's idea, we gathered up a Barbie, a hamster named Gerbie, and a Furby. Then, we invited five brave kids into the studio: Taro Higashi Zimmerman, Luisa Tripoli-Krasnow, Sadie Kathryn McGearey, Olivia Tate McGearey, Lila Cipolla, and Turin Cipolla.

We ran our results by Caleb Chung, the man who created Furby. And according to Caleb, the reason Furby gets under our skin is simple...but Jad and Robert aren't ready to buy his explanation. Sherry Turkle returns to help us think about what's going on.

Gerbie the hamster

Gerbie the hamster, who lives happily with Lila and Turin and has been renamed June.

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists


Automated voice: Listener-supported WNYC Studios.

Jad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: I am Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab.

Robert: And we are exploring the blur that takes place when humans and machines interact and investigate each other.

Jad: Talk to each other.

Robert: You see that's the thing. In the last act, we were always talking, talking, talking, and talking. How about we encounter machines in a different way? How about we-

Jad: No talking?

Robert: No talking. We touch them-

Jad: Ew.

Robert: -we pet them, we sniff them. We do sensual things that don't involve the sophisticated business of conversation.

Baird: Okay. [laughs]

Robert: This is Freedom Baird.

Baird: Yes it is.

Jad: This is not a machine.

Robert: I don't think so.

Jad: I'm Jad and this is-

Robert: I'm Robert here.

Baird: Hi there, nice to meet both of you.

Robert: We called her up because Freedom actually had her own moment with a machine.

Baird: Yes. This was around 1999.

Jad: Freedom was a graduate student-

Baird: At the media lab at MIT.

Jad: What were you doing there?

Baird: We were developing cinema of the future. We were working on creating virtual characters that you can interact with.

Robert: Anyhow she was also thinking about becoming a mom.

Baird: Yes, I knew I wanted to be a mom someday-

Robert: She decided to practice.

Baird: I got two gerbils, Twinky and Hoho. I had these two live pets and-

Robert: And then she got herself a pet that was well, not so alive.

Baird: Yes, I've got it right here.

Jad: Can you knock it against the mic so we can hear it say hello to it?

Baird: Yes. There it is. [knocking sound]

Jad: Hi Furby.

Furby: That's my Furby. [music]

Baird: At that time, Furbies were hot and happening.

Robert: Can you describe a Furby for those of us who-

Baird: Sure. It's about five inches tall and the Furby is pretty much all head. It's just a big round fluffy head with two little feet sticking out the front. It has big eyes.

Jad: Apparently it makes noises?

Baird: Yes. If you tickle its tummy it will coo. It would say-

Furby: Kiss me.

Baird: "Kiss me." It would want you to just keep playing with it. I spent about 10 weeks using the Furby. I would carry it around in my bag-

Robert: One day she's hanging out with her Furby and she notices something-

Baird: Very eerie. What I discovered is if you hold it upside down, it will say-

Furby: Me scared.

Baird: "Me scared. Me scared. Me sacred" and me as the sort of owner/user of this Furby would get really uncomfortable with that and then turn it back upright.

Robert: Once you have it upright it's fine. It goes right back-

Baird: Then it's fine. It's got some sensor in it that knows what direction it's facing.

Jad: Or maybe it's just scared. Sorry.

Robert: Anyway, wait a second now. This could be a new way that you could use to draw the line between what's human and what's machine.

Jad: Yes.

Baird: It is a kind of emotional touring test.

Jad: Can you guys hear me?

Children: Yes.

Jad: I can hear you.

Robert: If we actually wanted to do this test how would we do it exactly?

Jad: How are you guys doing?

Children: Good.

Baird: You would need a group of kids.

Jad: Can you guys tell me your name?

Olivia: I'm Olivia.

Louisa: Louisa.

Turin: Turin.

Daryl: Daryl

Lila: Lila.

Sadie: And I'm Sadie.

Jad: All right.

Baird: I'm thinking six, seven, and eight-year-olds.

Jad: How old are you guys?

Children: Seven.

Baird: The age of reason.

Robert: Then says Freedom, "We're going to need three things."

Baird: A Furby.

Robert: Of course.

Baird: Barbie.

Robert: A Barbie doll and-

Baird: Gerbie. That's a gerbil.

Jad: A real gerbil?

Baird: Yes.

Jad: And we did find one except it turned out to be a hamster. Sorry, you're a hamster but we're going to call you Gerbie.

Baird: You've got Barbie, Furby, Gerbie.

Robert: Barbie, Furby, and Gerbie. Wait just a second, what question are we asking in this test?

Baird: The question was, how long can you keep it upside down before you yourself feel uncomfortable?

Jad: So we should time the kids as they hold each one upside down?

Baird: Yes.

Jad: Including the gerbil?

Baird: Yes.

Robert: You're going to have a Barbie, that's a doll, you're going to have a Gerbie which is alive. Now, where would Furby fall?

Jad: In terms of time held upside down?

Robert: Would it be closer to the living thing or to the doll?

Baird: That was really the question.

Jad: Phase one. Okay so, here's what we're going to do. It's going to be really simple.

Baird: You would have to say, "Well, here's a Barbie."

Jad: Do you guys play with Barbies?

Children: No.

Baird: Just do a couple of things, a few things with Barbie.

Daryl: Barbie's walking looking at the flowers.

Jad: And then?

Baird: Hold Barbie upside down.

Jad: Let's see how long you can hold Barbie like that.

Daryl: I can probably do it obviously very long.

Jad: Let's just see.

[00:05:00] [END OF AUDIO]

Whenever you feel like you want to turn around?

Daryl: I feel fine.

Olivia: I'm happy.

Jad: This went on forever, lets just fast forward a bit.

Olivia: Can I put my elbows down?

Jad: Yes. What we learn here in phase one is the not-surprising fact that kids can hold Barbie dolls upside down.

Olivia: For like about five minutes.

Jad: It really was forever, it could have been longer but their arms got tired. That was the first task, time for phase two.

Freedom: Do the same thing with Gerbie.

Jad: Out with Barbie, in with Gerbie.

Olivia: He's so cute.

Daryl: Are we going to have to hold him upside down?

Jad: That's the test, yes, which one of you would like to-

Daryl: I'll try and be brave.

Jad: Ready, you have to hold Gerbie firmly.

Daryl: There you go.

Jad: There she goes, she's wiggling, by the way, no rodents were harmed in this whole situation.

Daryl: Squirmy.

Jad: Yes, she is pretty squirmy.

Olivia: I don't want it to be upside down.

Sadie: Oh, God.

Louisa: Don't do that.

Daryl: Oh my God.

Jad: As you heard the kids turned Gerbie over very fast.

Olivia: I just didn't want him to get hurt.

Jad: On average, eight seconds?

Daryl: I was, "Oh, my God, I've got to put him down, I've got to put him down."

Jad: It was a tortured eight seconds. Now phase three. This is a Furby. Louisa, you take Furby in her. Can you turn Furby upside down, hold her still like that, hold her still.

Louisa: Can you be quiet.

Jad: She just turned it over.

Louisa: That's better.

Jad: Gerbie was eight seconds, Barbie, five to infinity, Furby turned out to be, and Freedom predicted this.

Freedom: About a minute.

Jad: In other words, the kids seemed to treat this Furby, this toy more like a gerbil than a barbie doll. How come you turned him over so fast?

Louisa: I didn't want him to be scared.

Jad: Do you think he really felt scared?

Louisa: Yes, kind of. I felt guilty.

Jad: Really?

Louisa: Yes. It's a toy and all that but still.

Jad: Do you remember a time when you felt scared?

Louisa: Yes.

Jad: You don't have to tell me about it but if you could remember it in your mind.

Louisa: I do

Jad: Do you think when Furby says, "Me scared," that Furby's feeling the same way?

Louisa: Yes, no, no, no, yes, yes. I'm not sure.

Lila: I'm not sure, I think that it can feel pain sort of.

Jad: The experience with the Furby seemed to leave the kids conflicted, going in different directions at once.

Daryl: It was two thoughts.

Jad: Two thoughts at the same time?

All: Yes.

Jad: One thought was like, "Look I get it."

Daryl: It's a toy for crying out loud.

Jad: Another thought as like, still.

Louisa: He's helpless, it made me feel guilty in a way. It made me feel like a coward.

Freedom: When I was interacting with my Furby a lot, I did feel this feeling sometimes of having my chain yanked.

Robert: Why would it, is it just the little squeals that it makes, or is there something about the toy that makes it good at this.

Jad: That was my question, so I called up-

Robert: I have him in the studio as well, I'll have him.

Caleb: I'm here.

Jad: This frail train of a guy.

Caleb: I'm here.

Jad: This Jad from Radiolab.

Caleb: Jad, from Radiolab. Got it.

Jad: How are you?

Caleb: I'm good, beautiful day here in Boise.

Jad: This Caleb Chung, he actually designed the Furby. We're all Furby crazy here so,

Caleb: There's medication you can take for that.

Jad: To start, can you just give me the fast cutting MTV montage of your life, leading up to Furby.

Caleb: Sure, hippie parents, out of the house at 15 and a half, put myself through junior high, started my first business at 19 or something. Early 20s being a street mime in L.A, became an actor, did 120 shows in an orangutan costume, then I started working on special effects and building my own, taking those around the studios, took in a suite, build a suite around me, put me on location I could fix it when it broke.

Jad: After a long and secutus route, Caleb Chung eventually made it into toys.

Caleb: I answered an ad at Mattel.

Jad: Found himself in his garage.

Caleb: -garage and there's piles of styrene, plastics, X-Acto knives, super glue, little Mabuchi motors.

Jad: Making these little prototypes. The goal he says was always very simple.

Caleb: How do I get a kid to have this thing hang around with them for a long time? How do I get a kid to actually bond with it? Most toys, you play for 15 minutes and then you put them in the corner or until their batteries are dead. I wanted something that they would play with for a long time.

Jad: How do you make that toy?

Caleb: Well, there's rules, there's the size of the eyes. There's the distance of the top lid to the pupil. You don't want any of the top of the white if your eye showing, that's freaky surprise. When it came to the eyes, I had a choice with my one little mechanism. I can make the eyes go left or right or up and down, so it's up to you. You can make the eyes go left or right or up and down. Do you have a preference or--?

Jad: Left or right or up and down. I think I would choose left to right. I'm not sure why I say that but that's--

Caleb: All right, so let's take that apart. If you're talking to somebody and they look left or right while they're talking to you, what does that communicate?

Jad: Oh, shifty.

Caleb: Or they're trying to find the person who's more important than you behind you.

Jad: Oh, okay, now I want to change my answer now. I want to say up and down.

Caleb: You would. If you look at a baby and the way a baby looks at their mother, they track from eyebrows to mouth. They track up and down on the face.

Jad: Had you made Furby look left and right rather than up and down, it would have probably flopped?

Caleb: No, it wouldn't have flopped, it would've just sacked a little. [laughs] It's like a bad actor who uses his arms too much. You'd notice it and it would keep you from just being in the moment.

Jad: What is the thought behind that? Is it that you want to convince the child that the thing they're using is, fill in the blank, what?

Caleb: Yes, alive.

Jad: There's three elements I believe in creating something that feels to a human, like, it's alive. That rewrote Asimov's Laws. The first is, it has to feel and show emotions. Were you drawing on your mime days for that?

Caleb: Of course.

Jad: Those experiences in the park.

Caleb: Of course, you really break the body into parts and you realize you can communicate physically. If your chest goes up and your head goes up, and your arms go up, that's happy. If your head is forward, and your chest is forward, you're this angry guy.

Jad: He says when it came time to make Furby, he took that gestural language and focused it on Furby's ears.

Caleb: The ears, when they went up, that was surprise, when they went down, it was depression.

Jad: That's rule number one. The second rule is to be aware of themselves and their environment. If there's a loud noise, it needs to know that there was a loud noise, so, he gave the Furby little sensors so that if you go [bang], it'll say-

Furby: Hey, loud sound.

Caleb: The third thing is, change over time. Their behaviors have to change over time. That's a really important thing. It's a very powerful thing that we don't expect, but when it happens, we go, "Wow." One of the ways we showed that was acquiring human language.

Freedom: Yes, when you first get your Furby, it doesn't speak English, it speaks Furbish. This kind of baby talk language. Then, the way it's programmed, it will slowly over time replace its baby talk phrases with real English phrases so you get the feeling that it's learning from you.

Jad: Though of course, it's not.

Freedom: No, it has no language comprehension.

Jad: Right, so you've got these three rules, feel and show emotions, be aware of their environment, change over time.

Caleb: Oddly enough, they all seem to come together in that moment you turn the Furby upside down, because it seems to know it's upside down, so, it's responding to its environment, it's definitely expressing emotions. As you hold it there, what it's saying is changing over time because it starts with "hey", and then it goes to "me", and then it starts to cry. All this adds up so that when you're holding the damn toy, even though you know it's just a toy, you still feel--

Freedom: Discomfort.

Sherry: These features push our Darwinian buttons.

Robert: That's Professor Sherry Turkle again. She says, "If they pushed just enough of these buttons, then something curious happens. The machines slip across this very important line.

Sherry: From what I call relationships of projection to relationships of engagement. With a doll, you project onto a doll what you need the doll to be. If a young girl is feeling guilty about breaking her mom's China, she puts her Barbie dolls in detention. With robots, you really engage with the robot as though they're are significant other, as though they're a person.

Robert: The robot is in your story, the robot is its own story, or it's [crosstalk]

Sherry: Exactly, and I think what we're forgetting as a culture is that there's nobody home.

Jad: Well, I have to ask you, when is something alive?

Caleb: Furby can remember these events, they affect what he does going forward, and it changes his personality over time. He has all the attributes of fear or of happiness, and those are things that add up and change and changes behavior and how we interact with the world. How is that different than us?

Jad: Wait a second though, are you really going to go all the way there?

Caleb: Absolutely.

Jad: This is a toy with servo motors and things that move its eyelids and 100 words.

Caleb: You're saying that life is a level of complexity. If something is alive, it's just more complex?

Jad: I think I'm saying that life is driven by the need to be alive and by these base primal animal feelings like pain and suffering.

Caleb: I can code that.

Jad: What do you mean you can code that?

Caleb: Anyone who writes software and they do, can say, "Okay, I need to stay alive. Therefore I'm going to come up with ways to stay alive. I'm going to do it in a way that's very human and I'm going to do it." We can mimic these things, I'm saying--

Jad: If Furby is miming this feeling of fear. It's not the same thing as being scared. It's not feeling scared.

Caleb: It is.

Jad: How is it?

Caleb: It is. It's again, a very simplistic version but if you follow that trail, you wind up with our neurons, sending chemical things to other parts of our body, our biological systems, our code is at a chemical level, incredibly dense and evolved over millions of years, but it's just complex. It's not something different than what Furby does, it's just more complex.

Jad: Would you say then that Furby is alive?

Caleb: At his level?

Jad: At his level?

Caleb: Yes, at his level. Would you say a cockroach is alive?

Jad: Yes, when I kill a cockroach I know that it's feeling pain. We went back and forth and back and forth about this.

Robert: You were so close to arguing my position. You just said to him, like, it's not feeling.

Jad: I know. Emotionally, I am still in that place, but intellectually, I can't rule out what he's saying. That if you can build a machine that is such a perfect mimic of us in every single way, and it gets complex enough, eventually it will be like a Turing test passed and the difference between us maybe is not so-

Robert: I can't go there. I can't imagine, like the fellow who began this program who fell in love with the robot, that attachment wasn't real, the machine didn't feel anything like love back.

Jad: In that case, it didn't, but imagine a Svetlana that is so subtle and textured, and to use his word, complex in the way that people are. At that point what would be the difference?

Robert: I honestly, I can't imagine a machine achieving that level of rapture and joy and love and pain. I just don't think it's machine possible. If it were a machine possible, it somehow still stinks of something artificial.

Freedom: It's a thin interaction. I know that it feels--

Sherry: Simulated thinking is thinking simulated, feeling is not feeling. Simulated love is never love.

Robert: Exactly.

Sherry: I think what he's saying is that if it's simulated well enough, it's something like love.

Freedom: One thing that was really fascinating to me was my husband and I gave a Furby as a gift to his grandmother who had Alzheimer's and she loved it. Every day for her was kind of new and somewhat disorienting, but she had this cute little toy that said, "Kiss me. I love you." She thought it was the most delightful thing. Its little beak was covered with lipstick because she would pick it up and kiss it every day. She didn't actually have a longterm relationship with it. For her, it was always a short term interaction. What I'm describing as a kind of thinness, for her was just right because that's what she was capable of.

Jad: Thanks to Freedom Baird and to Caleb Chung.

Robert: Thanks to professor Sherry Turkle, who has a new book. It's called Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Jad: More information on anything you heard on our website, radiolab.org.

[music] [advertisement]

Annie McEwen: Hi, my name is Annie McEwen. I'm a producer at Radiolab, and I wanted to talk about this thing we do at Radiolab because I like it. We have this thing, it's a newsletter. Big surprise, every show has a newsletter, but ours I think is pretty fun.

Matt Kielty: Oh, it's so fun.

Annie: Matt Kielty.

Matt: Hello.

Annie: Producer, fellow producer at Radiolab. What is your favorite part of the newsletter?

Matt: My favorite part of the newsletter is first, it's getting it and seeing it in my inbox, and then second, it's opening it. Then third, is just hitting PgDn on my keyboard until I get to the very bottom of the e-mail-

Annie Oh, that's good.

Matt: -because you know what's at the bottom of the e-mail?

Annie: What?

Matt: You know.

Annie: Staff Picks.

Matt: Staff Picks at the bottom of the e-mail.

Annie: Yes.

Matt: How great is that?

Annie: It's great.

Matt: It's just stuff that we like, stuff we're into.

Annie: What are your favorites?

Matt: Some of my favorite staff picks-- There was the one video where it was 17 babies on a hamster wheel.

Annie: Really?

Matt: Oh, the article about the guy who ate 17 burritos.

Annie: Matt, you're not saying real ones.

Matt: Okay, what's your favorite staff pick?

Annie: My favorite one ever?

Matt: Yes.

Annie: Well, it's hard to say. One of my favorite ones ever was Robert talking in delightful detail about The Great Sausage Duel of 1865.

Matt: Classic pick.

Annie: Classic. Molly's bedbug pajamas.

Matt: Oh, yes. That was a scary time.

Annie: Tracie's pasta recipe which I did not make because I don't like to cook, but I'm just proud of her.

Matt: Actually, it's really simple.

Annie: Urgh.

Tracie: This is online. It's a 28 ounce can of tomatoes, five tablespoons of butter, a pinch of salt, an onion, and you cook it in a pan for 45 minutes, all right?


Matt: Thank you, Tracie. I'm telling you, everybody's loving this pasta dish.

Reviewer 1: Oh, I do definitely.

Matt: That woman. This guy.

Reviewer 2: Sure.

Reviewer 3: Oh, I think it's wonderful. Very tasty.

Reviewer 4: Pasta every day.

Annie: Not.


Annie: You're not helping. Anyway, our newsletter has cool stuff in it like staff picks. It also tells you when an episode is dropping.

Matt: It's free.

Annie: It's free.

Matt: We're just going to hit it, just say you should sign up.

Annie: Just sign up. You can sign up in about 30 seconds at radiolab.org/newsletter or text "RL News", as in Radiolab News, to 70101. That's "RL News" to 70101. Thank you.


Copyright © 2020 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.