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visitors since May 12, 2002
August 22, 2002
The fading art of Bubblebot subversion

When I was a child, my favourite pet was a small robot called a Bubblebot. It was about four inches tall, battery powered, and covered with fuzzy fur.

It was the first commercially available toy with inbuilt artificial intelligence. For many children, Bubblebots ushered in a new level of technology, and the world was a better place for it. The Bubblebot was a smart toy, but, as we shall see, it wasn't as smart as an inquisitive child.

Despite their shape, Bubblebots didn't come in a box. For reasons known only to MIT, who developed it, Bubblebots were delivered in a clear plastic tube. And there was a sticker on the tube which said "do not shake tube."

For most people this was an unnecessary warning. Of course they weren't going to shake the tube. The tube had a Bubblebot in it: a rare and precious thing. But for other people, the sticker was counter-productive. It just piqued their curiosity, and gave them an idea: what would happen if the tube was shaken?

History records that the first tube was shaken on a Tuesday morning. Two days later, by Thursday afternoon, more than a hundred thousand tubes had "shook," to use the catchphrase of the time. An epidemic was under way. For a time, tube shaking was more popular than breathing.

The result of all this tube activity was a great many confused Bubblebots. Shaking the tube rewired the Bubblebot's primitive behavioural circuits, and anarchy was a common result. The mania even produced a song: "Confuse All The Bubblebots." The video featured a small army of fuzzy toys, totally unable to sing in unison. For a time, it outsold The Chipmunks.

Most Bubblebots were first let loose on bedroom floors. A normal Bubblebot would walk around in a small circle, flapping its arms and repeatedly announcing "I'm a Bubblebot! I'm a Bubblebot!" But freshly shaken Bubblebots would demonstrate entirely unpredictable behaviour. Sometimes they'd arrive on the floor and immediately fall asleep. Sometimes they'd start dancing. Sometimes they'd hop around and smack their fuzzy head into hard pieces of furniture. Sometimes they'd catch fire. Sometimes they'd stand stock still, emit a high pitched whine, and melt into the carpet.

And sometimes, if all went well, there'd be another chance. The Bubblebot would go back into its tube, and be shaken again. With any luck, an entirely new behaviour would emerge. More entertainment. More wonder. More Bubblebot joy.

It was a magical time. There'd be the excitement of bringing the Bubblebot home, the gleeful menace of shaking its tube, and the joy of watching a small furry toy do things that its makers hadn't intended.


Those wonderful times have now gone, I'm sorry to say. Now there's nothing but tragic news on the Bubblebot front. Sure, they're still being made, and they're still being shipped in tubes. But the old warning sticker has been replaced. The new one says "for your convenience, Bubblebots now come preconfused."

When I first read those words, I felt as if lightning had torn me asunder. I was filled with dismay, with anguish, with disgust. I wanted to shake my fist at the sky and ask a higher power how the world had sunk this low.

I know I'm just one lonely voice, crying in the wilderness. But I just want to say: enough is enough. Let us shake our own tubes. Let us make our own fun.

And most importantly of all, let us confuse our own Bubblebots.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:52 PM in the Mad scientist storytelling category | Comments (0)
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