Since 2015, select inmates of Utah State Prison have had a choice of cellmate. They choose between traditional human companions and pain-in-the-ass robots that keep them up at night crying, require constant head support, and demand regular diaper changes. RealCare Baby 3, a sophisticated doll that can replicate most all of the irksome features found in actual infants, was designed as a modern update to watermelon-based sex ed and the prison couplings are part of a course called the Total Parenting Experience, which gives fathers an opportunity to hone their caregiving skills. Still, the hazards of prison remain. The babies snitch. If an RCB3 is ignored, starved, or dropped, it will report an incident.
The program at Utah State is part of growing evidence that the sim baby market is evolving well beyond teen pregnancy classes and sex education in high schools. Once the purview of health educators, these self-soiling machines are crawling their way into medical practices, courtrooms, and even in the bassinets of empty-nesters who simply want to replicate the euphoria of caring for a small being. In the process, these mewling faux-tots might wind up evolving from instructional tools to automated dependents.
For decades, sex and health educators who wanted to give teenagers a taste of the responsibility that comes with parenting had to be satisfied with the grocery aisles. Sacks of flour were passed out to help mimic the lower-back strain of toting a child everywhere; raw eggs were intended to simulate the fragility of a baby’s bone structure, usually the consistency of a saltine cracker.
For teenager, it was an eye-rolling exercise. To a rocket scientist, it was ludicrous.
Rick Jurmain, who worked for a company contracted to NASA, was home one day and watching television when he spotted the simplistic tools. He told his wife, Mary, that a sack of flour didn’t burp, didn’t need to be fed, and didn’t wake students up in the middle of the night. Then, a week later, Jurmain’s company lost their NASA contract. He was out of a job. It seemed like a good time to go into his garage and start working on the baby of the future.
Jurmain’s efforts resulted in the 1993 debut of Baby Think It Over, an infant simulator that whined at timed intervals and prompted the same kind of sleep deprivation that real babies excel in.
“It took off like a rocket,” says Scott Jameson, the vice-president of Realityworks, the company the Jurmains started in tandem with the doll’s release. “There was a huge concern over pregnancy rates and this was an incredibly innovative thing.”
The Jurmains stepped down from day-to-day operations in 2005, but Baby Think It Over has never stopped evolving. Jameson estimates there have been at least eight iterations of the doll since 1993, all of them carefully engineered to ensure backward compatibility for the existing software and infrastructure in use at learning institutions. Baby — the company’s preferred shorthand for their semi-sentient product — typically sells for $649 and can be found in more than 30,000 schools around the world. Some students, woken at 4 a.m. by their incessant wailing, have called caring for Baby “torture.”
Jameson is much less harsh. “It’s basically a computer wrapped in vinyl,” he says. Baby is as much a monitoring device as it is a stimulus, recording reactions to its provocations. A teenager might take in the doll for a weekend, being mindful to discern its cries of hunger from its cries of distress. When it’s tended to properly, it will coo. If it’s left in a hot vehicle or travels without a proper car seat, it will track the neglect for later review. If its head is not supported, the would-be parent will suffer a low caregiver’s score.
The latter is what helps separate Realityworks from its relatively meager competition. A doll that requires head support is patent-worthy. So are the company’s variants that can demonstrate the cognitive damage of shaken baby syndrome, or the frailty of a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome (they have specific models for that syndrome and others such as shaken baby). The Realityworks brood is part of a big cautionary tale of what happens when a lack of maturity and responsibility clash with the demands of caring for a tiny life.
Although Baby remains largely in custody of juvenile health educators, infant sims are starting to pop up in unexpected places. Utah State is one; Jameson says the dolls have also been propped up in courtrooms in cases where child neglect was at issue. “Going through the program provides an assessment, proof that you can properly care for a child before privileges for your own are restored,” he says. Early childhood care facilities buy them in bulk so employees can learn to juggle the responsibilities of multiple babies at once.
These expanding markets might have seen Realityworks strive to refine Baby, to increase its market value as an infant simulator by giving it an animatronic face that frowns or laughs, or roving eyes that can record hostile gestures. But Jameson says that pursuing that kind of near-reality would be counterintuitive.
“Think of flight simulators,” he says. “You do need to create a certain amount of realism. If you don’t, people will see it as a game and won’t take it as seriously. But at the same time, extreme realism can go over the top and distract from the simulated event.”
Not long ago, Jameson says, Baby went through a testing phase where its face became eerily real. In consumer testing, it was off-putting, and the idea was abandoned. Spontaneous movement is a possibility — babies like to twitch and jerk in a caregiver’s arms, or grow rigid when clothes are put on — but thus far, there’s been no overwhelming demand from Realityworks’s customer base for that level of activity. Smell though? Sure. The “baby plastic” has been infused with a scent similar to the powdery, fresh fragrance of a little life.
For more stark realism, the Norwegian based Laerdal Medical manufactures SimBaby, which breathes and has a circulatory system to measure blood pressure, but its care is relegated to aspiring medical professionals. Those same students might one day be using virtual or augmented reality, which promises to revolutionize health education, but fatiguing eyewear is unlikely to be conducive to an entire trial weekend — and there’s no virtual substitute for Baby’s hefty weight of eight or nine very real pounds.
In the baby bot frontier, it may not be dynamic features or virtual reality that herald a new infant age, but the end users. Psychologists have identified a small subculture of women who have taken to caring for sim dolls. Dubbed “reborn babies” and sold via outlets like Quality-Dolls.com, these infants provide an object to absorb feelings stirred by loss, either via miscarriage or empty nest syndrome.
“There can be a variety of factors,” says Sue Varma, MD, a psychiatrist based in New York who has had patients who have toted the dolls around. “[It can be] loss, loneliness, nurturing and caretaking. It is unusual, but for many women who do this it takes the place of caretaking for a pet.”
Susan Greene, owner of Quality-Dolls.com, says her clientele includes women who have suffered miscarriages or early newborn death, using them in a kind of role-play that can have them changing their diapers, walking them, or “waking” them. For the reborn community, technology isn’t as crucial as texture. “The majority are looking for babies that are soft vinyl, real in skin texture with deep undertones that gives depth and life to the skin, veins, finger and toenails,” Greene says. “They want them weighted to feel like a real baby cuddling in their arms or weighted to sit if it is an older baby. Rooted hair is also very popular.”
Bonding with such a doll, Varma says, might even provoke the same sort of hormonal response—the release of oxytocin, or “cuddle” hormone — that cradling a real baby would, even if age might preclude them from having one of their own. “I see it more in older women, single, in their 50s, maybe with a limited social support network.”
Such varied demographics will probably continue to push Realityworks, Quality Dolls, and more modest ventures into increasingly lifelike infants, with one rigid commonality: None of them will ever age.
“We joke,” Jameson says, “that some of our babies would have graduated college by now.”