Inspired by the article How Baby-Driven Robots Could Help Disabled Children. I think it’s a great idea.
Roger Preston was dropping his son Phillip off at daycare when he was attacked from behind by a robotic spider.
“Bye bye, Phillip. Daddy’s going to go now,” he had been saying. “Have a great time here with the other—oof!” He fell forward as something hard hit him in the back and he narrowly missed falling on his son. Phillip clapped and giggled at silly daddy.
Roger scrambled away from grasping metal legs and looked back to see a 3-foot wide robotic spider with a toddler sitting in its midst. The way the child sat motionless with its head lolled to one side, while the robot moved around it, produced a very odd picture.
Roger found the teacher right away.
“I guess I should have said something to you about Warren,” the teacher, Mrs. Fredericks said. “We just don’t want to judge or make any child feel different. Warren has a muscle disease and can’t move on his own, so he has his little Creep Around to help with that. Now he can keep up with the other children at playtime.”
“How exactly does he drive it?” Roger asked. “I didn’t see any controls.”
“It’s connected to his brainwaves, so he can drive it just by thinking,” Mrs. Fredericks said, as proudly as if she had invented it herself. “Now, Mr. Preston, I guess I’ll see you this afternoon?”
“I think I’m going to stay and watch a bit today,” Roger said.
There were hard plastic chairs at the back of the room where parents could wait if they came early or just wanted to observe. Roger called his work to tell them he would be late and then settled in to watch Warren in action.
It soon became clear that the robot more than made up for Warren’s disability, at least in movement. At playtime, the children all rushed for the toy chests. Warren, on the other hand, took a flying leap, six feet over their heads and grabbed a toy first. He picked up a teddy bear with two steel pincers and stroked it lovingly with a third. Only once did he become too greedy and tipped over after trying to grab toys with the legs he was standing on. It only took a moment to right himself and scuttle back into the fray.
Roger was impressed, although he wasn’t sure about the brainwave-driven aspect of it. During nap-time, Warren’s robot’s legs suddenly spasmed and he leapt six feet in the air and clung to a wall. Night terrors, Mrs. Fredericks explained. Roger ended up spending the whole day at the daycare, watching Warren with a sort of macabre fascination. Phillip didn’t seem to mind the cybernetically-enhanced boy and played with him just the same.
Roger told his wife Maggie about it when he got home. She was outraged.
“That’s not fair in the least,” she said. “Here this other boy is getting an unfair advantage over the other children. There is no way Phillip can compete with a kid who’s half robot.”
“Well, he’s not really a robot,” Roger said. “Plus, he wouldn’t be able to move otherwise. Phillip didn’t seem to mind him at all.”
“I know, but what about later in life? This is probably the way of the future anyway, so this Warren kid will already be used to the technology when Phillip is just be learning it. I want you get Phillip one of those robots.”
“Yes, honey,” Roger said, and then realized what she had said. “What? No way Phillip is getting one of those!”
“He doesn’t have to use it all day, but he’s getting one. I won’t have my Phillip being upstaged by a robot kid.” She stalked off before he could argue.
Roger looked into it and finally bought the thing. It was easier than arguing and he secretly though it was pretty cool that his 3-year-old son could drive a robot. He bought a smaller version of Warren’s spider walker, but one with a large battery pack that promised higher speeds and a longer jump. This one had manual controls too.
Phillip took to his robot walker as if his mother had been a Borg. He never wanted to get out of it, so Roger rigged up a strap to put the whole thing into the back seat of the SUV. When he dropped Phillip off at daycare, however, Mrs. Fredericks approached with an awkward smile on her face.
“I’m not sure we can allow Phillip to have one of these as well,” she said.
“Well, Warren has one. What’s the difference?”
“Well, Warren is, uh, differently abled. These robot walkers are more for people in his unique life situation.”
“I know how much you don’t want people to feel differently,” Roger said. “That’s one reason we got this. Warren must feel so alone and outside things, beings the only one in a special walker. We wanted him to feel included by getting Phillip one too. At home, we call it the ‘sympathy machine’.”
“Oh, well I see what you mean,” Mrs. Fredericks said. “I guess it’s okay then.”
Roger called Maggie on his way out. “I won her over. It’s all good.”
It was all good too, for a while. Then Roger noticed that other kids were showing up to daycare with movement-assistance robots. In two months, two thirds of the kids had them and the ones without could never keep up. They either stopped coming or got ones of their own.
Warren didn’t seem too happy either now that he could not always get the first toy or jump over everyone to get to the lunch line first. One day, when his parents dropped him off, he was sitting in a new hover chair that floated a foot off the ground. After that, it was total war. The daycare finally capitulated and changed its name to Bridge Grove Mechanized Daycare.
A memo from a year later: