Why we love robotic dogs, puppets and dolls

There’s a lot of hype around the release of Sony’s latest robotic dog. It’s called “aibo,” and is promoted as using artificial intelligence to respond to people looking at it, talking to it and touching it.

Japanese customers have already bought over 20,000 units, and it is expected to come to the U.S. before the holiday gift-buying season – at a price nearing US$3,000.

Why would anyone pay so much for a robotic dog?

My ongoing research suggests part of the attraction might be explained through humanity’s longstanding connection with various forms of puppets, religious icons, and other figurines, that I collectively call “dolls.”

These dolls, I argue, are embedded deep in our social and religious lives.

Spiritual and social dolls

As part of the process of writing a “spiritual history of dolls,” I’ve returned to that ancient mythology of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions where God formed the first human from the dirt of the earth, and then breathed life into the mud-creature.

Since that time, humans have attempted to do the same – metaphorically, mystically and scientifically – by fashioning raw materials into forms and figures that look like people.

As folklorist Adrienne Mayor explains in a recent study, “Gods and Robots,” such artificial creatures find their ways into the myths of several ancient cultures, in various ways.

Beyond the stories, people have made these figures part of their religious lives in the form of icons of the Virgin Mary and human-shaped votive objects.

In the late 19th century, dolls with a gramophone disc that could recite the Lord’s Prayer were produced on a mass scale. That was considered a playful way of teaching a child to be pious. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, certain spirits are believed to reside in figurines created by humans.

Across time and place, dolls have played a role in human affairs. In South Asia, dolls of various forms become ritually important during the great goddess festival Navaratri. Katsina dolls of the Hopi people allow them to create their own self-identity. And in the famed Javanese and Balinese Wayang – shadow puppet performances – mass audiences learn about a mythical past and its bearing on the present.

Making us human

In the modern Western context, Barbie dolls and G.I. Joes have come to play an important role in children’s development. Barbie has been shown to have a negative impact on girls’ body images, while G.I. Joe has made many boys believe that they are important, powerful and that they can do great things.

Barbie dolls. Tinker Tailor loves Lalka, CC BY-NC
What is at the root of our connection with dolls?

As I have argued in my earlier research, humans share a deep and ancient relationship with ordinary objects. When people create forms, they are participating in the ancient hominid practice of toolmaking. Tools have agricultural, domestic and communication uses, but they also help people think, feel, act and pray.

Dolls are a primary tool that humans have used for the spiritual and social dimensions of their lives.

They come to have a profound influence on humans. They help build religious connections, such as teaching children to pray, serving as a medium for answering prayers, providing protection and prompting healing.

They also model gender roles and teach people how to behave in society.