From Furbies to Cabbage Patch Dolls, the most successful toys have employed a variety of tricks to make us love them, and as Chris Baraniuk discovers, now these cues could shape future robots too.

At a recent car boot sale in the UK, Mark Tilden stumbled on something he often looks for at second-hand markets – one of his famous creations. Tilden, formerly a roboticist the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is a toy designer and he was now holding in his hands one of the humanoid bots he invented for children, “Robosapien”. Delighted with his find, he bought it for, “something like five quid”. The bot would give him the perfect opportunity to see exactly how it had been used.

“This toy had been played with to death. I was amazed,” he says. “It was filled with sand, it was filled with Plasticine, it had make-up still on it, rusted batteries – it had obviously been taken into the bath-tub – and that was fascinating because all of a sudden you realise that someone had loved this toy to the absolute extent.” Sure, it had been up for sale, but this bot had a good life.

What was it about this robot that had appealed so much to its owner? It’s a question that Tilden and other roboticists think is important – not just for toy design, but the future of robotics. For too long, robots have suffered from an image problem. They are often perceived as mechanical, cold and threatening in our culture and it’s difficult to reverse that impression. But this view of robots could be changed if they were designed to appeal to us with the same familiarity and, indeed, personality that our childhood toys once possessed.  

Children’s affection for Robosapien could be explained by the bot’s ability to display these characteristics, argues Tilden. His robot was never designed to seem super smart or unreasonably clever, but to have foibles and quirks that would entertain children and engage their imaginations. For instance, the toy’s 67 pre-programmed functions include belching, rapping and dancing. Seeing the Robosapien as a pal was far more important than seeing it as a hyperintelligent, futuristic machine.

Could other successful toys provide similar cues for robot designers? Perhaps – and it needn’t even be toy robots. Take Cabbage Patch Kids, for example. A highly successful line of dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids appealed to children’s emotional intuition through their insistence on being taken seriously as infants that required love and attention. They needed their nappies changing, as one advertisement explained, and came with documentation like birth certificates and adoption papers which positioned them within a mock bureaucratic world of parenting. As entertainment scholars have noted, it was the emotional responsibilities of owning a Cabbage Patch doll that made them persistent as toys – kids couldn’t put them down because they had a duty to look after them, a duty which they understood instinctively.

How do we get from here to robots? A few other toys will help to explain. In the 1990s, the electronic sophistication of toys was burgeoning and offered new opportunities to exploit children’s empathetic instincts. Tamagotchis were small egg-shaped mini computers with a square LCD screen displaying an animated pet.

The onus was on the child to look after this pet by feeding and playing with it. More than 76 million Tamagotchis have been sold worldwide since their arrival in 1996. The phrase “Tamagotchi effect” was coined to describe the strong emotional attachment to virtual agents exhibited by Tamagotchi owners.

Newspaper reports at the time marvelled at how children expressed extreme outpourings of grief when their “cyberpet” finally succumbed to that great leveller of all, death. Tamagotchis required children to carry out a duty of care, like Cabbage Patch Kids, but the difference was that the consequences of bad parenting would actually be played out.

The Furby, launched in the 1990s, was designed to evoke similar emotions. Furry, talkative and exhaustingly needy, Furbies yearned for love and care. In this Radiolab podcast, Furby co-creator Caleb Chung explains that Furbies were designed to appeal to human beings’ innate sense of compassion by sounding scared when held upside down, or by quivering at loud noises.

Quaint, you might think, and something that only small children would do. But consider the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who gave funerals to combat robots when they were irreparably damaged. That machines provoke strong emotional connections with us is not the preserve of children.

All of this is now directly informing the work of robot designers around the world. Aldebaran Robotics, headquartered in Paris, has learned a lot from the world of toys.

“When we saw that children were able to have a very strong connection with a Tamagotchi, a very simple device, we knew that it would be possible to create a much stronger connection with a robot that had a humanoid shape, an expressive voice and expressive gestures,” explains Aldebaran’s research director, Rodolphe Gelin. “Toys demonstrated to us that this was possible.”

The company’s most famous bot is Nao – a humanoid robot used in educational settings. Nao is intentionally the size of a teddy bear, says Gelin, so as not to be too large and “invasive”. Nao also has LEDs around its eyes and on the sides of its head that animate to provide further cues, such as blinking, which suggest it is alive. Even simple things, like making sure Nao didn’t have a lot of visible metallic parts, helped to naturalise it.

Aldebaran has also crammed the robot full of sensing capabilities which mean its behaviour can subtly adapt to the needs of human companions. Cameras and image analysis can distinguish your gender, or mood, for example, and 3D scanners read body language.

Studies that explore how children interact with robots have shown that this level of social intelligence is crucial for supporting long-term relationships with machines. Lola Canamero, a researcher in adaptive intelligent behaviour at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, agrees that children are generally very willing to initially suspend their disbelief when greeting a robot. However, that suspension of disbelief may not last very long unless the variety of interactions can continue to engage the child.

“If children see that the robot is actually responding to what they do and not just performing random actions, that keeps their interest for much longer and persuades them to continue interacting with the robot,” she says.

The results of all these efforts to improve the social capacities of robots speak for themselves. For instance, Gelin recalls visiting a nursing home in France to ask if the residents there, who had never seen Nao, would be interested in a robot companion. The elderly people scoffed at the idea. Gelin told them he of course understood – but before he left, he pulled Nao out of his bag. The mood in the room transformed. Suddenly the nursing home residents were fascinated and intrigued. “Can he sing? Can he talk to me?” they asked.

It’s this eagerness for companionship that Gelin says robot manufacturers must now appeal.

“What is most important for us is to have a robot which understands your emotion and which can itself express emotion,” explains Gelin. “What one generally imagines for a robot, that he will perform tasks, clean the house, bring you a beer – for us these things will come later. The first thing is to have robots which are accepted at home.”

After all, when we were children, we had a special connection to our toys. They had personalities, could follow us on adventures and proved to be the ultimate companions. Perhaps the most promising robots of the future, then, will just be toys all grown up.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook or Google+ page, or message us on Twitter.