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What Babies Are Really Thinking & Saying: World Domination?

May 9, 2005

Some tech news having nothing to do with call centers but interesting nontheless:

 

This is reminiscent of the plot to a bad ‘80s movie that stars a ‘70s icon whose career nearly precipitated to the grave until when a decade later he danced again and stuck a needle into Uma Thurman’s breast. But here it is. 

 

Japanese researchers are working on a gadget to translate babies’ babbling. The translator is being developed through monitoring infants’ cries, facial expressions and even their body temperature. The research team has been experimenting on babies by trying to read babies’ faces numerically (such as the distance between eyebrows and the tip of the nose). The team is also analyzing the potential relationship of high/low frequencies in the sound of the babies’ cries, to find out if these frequencies show they want specific things. Even more, the researchers are monitoring the temperature of the infants’ bodies—mostly the face—through thermography (theory: temperature change=indication of particular desires).

 

The head of the research team, a neurobiology professor, aims to launch the techno gadget this month next year. The conclusions have thus far not been elaborated upon.

 

The gadget would be for use at medical institutions and in homes.

 

Do we really want to know what they’re thinking, though? As my mind wanders, the whole thing makes me wonder if babies nowadays really could be as intelligent (as well as odious) and bent on world domination as Family Guy’s baby Stewie: “Damn you, vile woman, you've impeded my work since the day I escaped your wretched womb!”

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DRB

 

Look Who's Talking: Gadget Promises to Translate Baby Babbling 

Sun May 8,11:27 PM ET 

TOKYO, (AFP) - The cryptic cries, grins and gurgles of babies that leave parents dumbfounded could soon be deciphered, if the wonders of modern technology are to be trusted.

Three years after a toymaker scored a smash hit with the "Bowlingual" gadget to interpret the warp and woof of a dog's life, Japanese researchers may have an even bigger sensation -- a translator for baby babbling.

"We aim to develop a device to read babies' feelings," says Kazuyuki Shinohara, a neurobiology professor at the state-run Nagasaki University who leads the research team.

The gadget could be a godsend in a country where a growing number of young people find child-rearing too burdensome, although some experts are cautious about an almost science-fiction world where babies are understood with machines before they learn to talk.

Shinohara's group has been conducting experiments involving mothers and their babies by monitoring the infants' cries, facial expressions and body temperature changes in a project backed by the government-subsidized Japan Science and Technology Agency.

"We are trying to read babies' faces numerically such as the distance between eyebrows and the nose tip," Shinohara tells AFP.

As for other clues on what babies mean to say, researchers are also analyzing whether high or low frequencies in the sound of the cries show they want specific things.

The team is also monitoring the temperatures of babies' bodies, mostly the face, through thermography. Shinohara says changes in temperature normally indicate particular desires.

The professor, who declined to elaborate on his conclusions or the shape of the gadget pending patenting, aims to launch the device by mid-2006.

"The technology will be completed by around summer this year," he says. "Commercialization will likely come in spring or summer of next year as it is expected to take some time to make the device smaller."

The product would be for use at both medical institutions and in homes. The professor says he wants to make the price for a home-use version below 10,000 yen (95 dollars).

As Japanese families are becoming smaller, many parents lack knowhow in taking care of babies.

"We have seen a lot of mothers who can hardly hug their babies," Shinohara says. "With their husbands returning home late and local communities losing close bonds among residents, these mothers have to struggle with child-rearing alone even if it is a totally new experience for them," he says.

Some experts are skeptical whether technology can fill the gap.

"You may lose confidence as a parent if your baby cries a lot. But your child-rearing ability increases gradually by trial and error," says Yuko Iguchi, clinical psychologist at National Children's Castle in Tokyo which offers children opportunities for athletic, artistic and other activities.

"Such ability grows only if you mobilize all of your five senses. It would set off an alarm bell in me if parents understand their baby only through machines," she says.

Japan has one of the world's lowest birth rates, with many people putting off marriage indefinitely fearing that family life would harm their careers and lifestyles.

Shinohara claims his device could make bringing up children more enjoyable for parents.

"It is cruel just to tell them 'You should naturally know what your baby wants'," he says.

"There is no use scolding the parents. We want them to have fun in raising babies by taking advantage of technology," he says.

The professor claims the device may also help detect abnormalities such as autism or show children are being neglected if the child remains mute at the sight of an event that would normally cause a clear facial expression.

Not all parents are convinced the gadget will work.

Rumiko Kobayashi, a 31-year-old mother of an 18-month-old boy and three-month-old girl, says babies want different things from different people and what held true for mothers might not be the case for fathers.

"It may be good to give it to struggling parents as a joke gift but I would not buy it," she says.

But Mio Okada, a 21-year-old student, says "it's good" to develop a translator.

"I have taken care of babies of relatives but sometimes got confused about what they wanted. When they cried violently, I asked them 'What? Can you be a bit clearer about what you want -- do you want to change diapers or have milk?'," she says.

In a potential sign of the market for the baby translator, Japanese toymaker Takara Co. Ltd. has sold 300,000 Bowlingual dog translators in Japan since its launch in September 2002, as well as 100,000 in North America and 50,000 in South Korea.



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