In 2008, I left my job at Amazon.com to become the Director of Quality Assurance at a small startup called Ugobe. Ugobe made artificial life forms, a phrase that, up until then, I’d only hear in science fiction. It was a wonderful experience, interacting with some of the most forward-thinking people whom I’ve ever met. There was a lot that our products didn’t do with respect to being completely autonomous and alive. However, we only believed that they couldn’t do it yet.
Our first product was a robotic dinosaur named PLE0. Unlike other dinosaur robots, PLE0 had no remote. It decided what to do, when and how. If something happened to PLE0 (good or bad), PLE0 would react to it to show his approval or disapproval.
One of the fascinating aspects of the product was the way that it affected other life forms, mainly humans. As humans, we have an incredible capacity to fill in the gaps in our experience, if we observe 70% of an alive experience, we tend to fill in the gaps by overlaying our living experience onto the portion of the living experience that is present. This allows us to bond with the artificial life form as if it is alive. We see evidence of sadness, and consider the events that took the robot to being sad; and, soon, we’re thinking about the robot’s feelings to the point where some humans are visibly upset when PLE0 wails with discomfort.
As I was learning all of this, I decided to introduce PLEO to my 4-year-old. I found an excellent opportunity to do this while she was coloring one day. I thought that it would be interesting to see which activity would be more compelling. It turned out that I learned a lot more.
You can see that Sunny refers to PLE0 as “she,” which was remarkable since at the lab we all referred to PLE0 in the masculine sense. Also, she was immediately asking if PLE0 could color with her. Lastly, as soon as she touched PLE0 and experienced PLE0’s reaction, the coloring activity was out of her mind.
The video is only 1:43 because my camera phone didn’t have the capacity of today’s phones. This leaves a gap between the first video and this one. Sunny had been so rough with PLE0, that I began to pet PLE0 to try to bring down his anxiety so that Sunny could get a more balanced experience. Sunny let me know that she thought I was petting PLE0 too hard.
It’s fun to look back at this video, now six years later. PLE0 was an acronym for Personal Life Enhancing Organism. Although he mainly sits on the shelf in my office today, he’s the most human machine that I own.