I was shopping in Wal-Mart recently (looking for a Mother’s Day card and some cardstock for printing a board game), when I heard a baby crying. That’s not unusual in a place like Wal-Mart, but it got my attention for two reasons. First, this baby was really howling — not like it was in pain, but seriously cranky. And second, the crying sounded slightly odd, in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. After a few minutes, I decided to follow the sound and find out where it was coming from.

 The source turned out to be a young woman — a teenager, really — in the handbags and accessories department. Sure enough, she had a baby, and she was briskly patting and rubbing its back, trying to get it to quiet down. Then I looked closer and saw that it wasn’t a real baby. It was a life-size infant mannequin. The crying had sounded odd because it was artificial — a digitized recording of some kind. This clearly wasn’t any sort of doll; it was a robot baby. And the girl caring for it wasn’t playing. She seemed quite serious about what she was doing.

 I didn’t want to stand there and stare, so I walked on. But as I continued shopping, I kept trying to figure out what I had seen. Where did that robot baby come from, and why was she carrying it around in Wal-Mart? As I left the store, I noticed that she was sitting on a bench just inside the front door, feeding her “child” from a bottle. I got half a dozen steps into the parking lot, and realized that I couldn’t leave without finding out what was going on. Retracing my steps, I approached the young woman and said, “Excuse me, but I’m curious about your baby. Can you tell me what it is?”

 She smiled and explained that she was participating in a Baby Think It Over class, designed to give teenagers a taste of what it’s like to be a parent. The “infant” was a RealCare Baby infant simulator. The baby is programmed to need feeding, changing, and so forth at unpredictable intervals, and records how well you care for it, so you can’t just leave it in the trunk of your car while you go shopping; you actually have to carry it around with you, just like a real baby. (That’s why she had it in Wal-Mart.) The student has to wear an wristband with an identifying disc that fits into a recess on the baby’s back. This is to ensure that the student actually cares for the baby personally, instead of palming it off on someone else. When I saw her patting the baby’s back, she was also inserting her ID in the recess so the baby would recognize her.

 I had no idea this technology existed, but it sure strikes me as a good idea. Any new parent can tell you that you can’t really know what you’re getting into before you’re confronted with the reality of a baby that you are responsible for, twenty-four hours a day. I see that the RealCare Baby comes with an operating handbook for the instructor, but none for the “parent.” Just like the real thing.

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