Tamagotchi and the rise of bots

Most people alive in the late 90s-early 2000s will remember the rise of the Tamagotchi. The little egg-shaped toys that housed a digital robotic pet for children to care for.

From the moment of their 1996 release in Japan, the Tamagotchi has made a far-reaching impact. And this impact goes deeper than providing mass entertainment for children.

Indeed, the toys also popularised a new type of robot that existed only in the digital realm. That is, the humble Tamagotchi assisted in the rise of bots we use so widely in the world around us. But how exactly does the children’s toy relate to the sophisticated software bots we know and use today?

The rise of bots

Nowadays, the term ‘robot’ encompasses a wide range of technology tools and ideas. For instance, factory robots, artificial intelligence, chatbots, and so on.

In its most basic terms, a robot is a programmable machine that can automatically carry out a series of actions. The idea of robots has origins that date as far back as the Ancient Greeks. However, the first humanoid robot — ELEKTRO — didn’t go on display until 1939.

As technology progressed, robots split into two separate types. Alongside physical robots, software bots emerged. That is, robots that exist digitally, without the corporeal trappings of metal and wire.

Software bots today take a wide range of forms, from web crawlers to chatbots and rule-based automation bots. They simulate, handle and complete simple, repetitive and routine work so that a human doesn’t have to.

A bit about the Tamagotchi

The Tamagotchi is a handheld digital pet originating from Japan. Developed by Bandai and first released in 1996, Tamagotchi became one of the biggest toy fads of the 90s and early 2000s.

A Tamagotchi takes the shape of an egg and hosts a digital display of a small character. This character would autonomously go about a daily routine — needing food and attention, and putting itself to bed at night. It would rely on a caretaker to look after it. You could play games with it, feed it, and give it medicine when it fell sick.

Since its initial release, Tamagotchi has grown in ability and is still enjoying popularity today. More subtly, however, the colourful egg-shaped 90s toy has also played a role in the rise of bots and AI.

The cousins of modern bots

When the rise of bots saw the split from physical robots, we needed something to bridge the gap in understanding. After all, people had gotten used to the idea of machines as robots. The idea of invisible robots, less so. And that’s where the Tamagotchi comes in.

The Tamagotchi toys gave a physical representation of a simplistic software bot. The pet itself existed only in the digital realm, not unlike the bots of today. The digital pets would carry out some activities automatically. But the decision-making was reserved for the humans. This mirrors most forms of modern software automation.

Later Tamagotchi toys also displayed an early, simplistic form of machine learning. That is, the carer of the digital pet could ‘train’ the software bot cousin to use the toilet. (Interestingly, Tamagotchi wasn’t the only 90s toy to exhibit the idea of machine learning. Rather, Furby demonstrated the functionality too.)

Where we are today

Nowadays, software bots have graduated from children’s toys and entered the world of work.

Some have taken the form of web crawlers, helping us browse the internet. Others are talking to our customers as chatbots. Many are following rules to handle menial admin tasks for us as business process automation.

We’ve also seen continued growth in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

The Tamagotchi ‘bots’ weren’t as productive as the software bots we have in the workplace today. But the digital pets provided a gateway to the idea that a robot didn’t need a mechanical body.

The Tamagotchi effect

The influence that the Tamagotchi has had over the rise of bots and AI doesn’t stop there. The little toys also ended up lending their name to a psychological effect that some bots and AI have on humans.

The Tamagotchi effect refers to the human tendency to develop an emotional attachment with machines and bots. As AI has grown, the Tamagotchi effect has become a topic of ethical consideration in the field. The question is, is this animism (that is, assigning human attributes to inanimate objects, like machines) an ethical problem?

In other words, it seems that the Tamagotchi may have been too effective at getting us to accept the rise of bots and AI into our lives.

Tamagotchi and the rise of bots

Tamagotchi introduced an increasingly sophisticated technology in a simple, accessible way.

They’ve drifted on and off the shelves in various colours and editions over the years. They’ve provided a pet and a companion for children, and they’ve subtly introduced the concept of software bots. (Perhaps even too effectively.)

But if it weren’t for non-threatening introductions to AI and bots like Tamagotchi and Furby, would we be as accepting of the AI and bots we have today?