Birth of a Nano Nation: Where the Robot Is Boss

If you live with young children and they have not yet discovered Nano Babies, brace yourself. Like their "virtual pet" cousins, these small computerized babies add a new level of emotional stress to millions of American households.

I mistakenly believed our family population had stabilized with the recent addition of a dog and a cat. But a couple of weeks ago, my eight-year-old daughter was swept into the Nano Baby craze by one of her neighborhood pals.

As with most social plagues, this one is passed on through contact with trusted friends.

I was mildly irritated that the trinket cost $14. It's just a molded plastic key chain with a memory chip inside and a tiny digital screen that displays pictures of the new playmate. However, the monetary value turns out to be minuscule once you start adding up all the time and energy spent caring for your Nano Baby. These things are not inert. Unlike dolls or stuffed bears, they demand attention. Literally.

"Why is it beeping?" was the first dumb question I asked about Baby "Gus." (Naming the infant is also part of the game.)

"He's crying because he's hungry," my daughter answered. "He wants his bottle. Or a sundae."

What seemed like an extremely dubious assertion was quickly confirmed by my wife.

"Didn't you read the directions?" she asked. "It's like a real baby. You have to feed it, change its diapers, bathe it, keep it entertained. There are buttons to press for each job."

In short order, it seemed that our child's life was ruled by the "attention icon," as clearly stated in the instructions: If the attention icon [!?] appears along with an insistent beep, you need to check on your Nano Baby.

And it can happen during breakfast, soccer practice, bedtime, or in the middle of any worthwhile activity - sleep, for example.

Failure to properly care for your electronic tyke will result in virtual doom, but you are not off the hook: Your child will simply press the "reset" button and start over. If your child can somehow keep one beep ahead of the Nano Baby for 12 days, a second baby will be issued, and then a third.

And if all these siblings make ample use of the !? icon, it will be an exhausting winter.

This situation is an example of what I call the "inverted future." For years, science-fiction writers predicted that robots would be developed to serve humanity.

Instead, we've produced robots that just sit around demanding to be serviced. Isaac Asimov would be astounded.

But you can't fight the Nano Babies once they're inside your domicile. Resistance only makes any fad seem more appealing. My advice is to give the kids some slack, pretend everything is normal, keep the instructions handy, and hope their interest runs out before the batteries do.

* Jeff Shaffer is a writer living in Portland, Ore. He does humorous commentaries for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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