Tucked away in western Wisconsin, not terribly far from Minneapolis, sits a factory full of babies. Babies tossed in boxes. Babies wrapped in plastic. Babies whacked with mallets. This factory produces each baby in just 15 minutes, and sells them for $649 apiece. Many of them are given to teenagers, in a bid to keep them from having babies of their own.
These ‘bot babies teach would-be parents and medical types how to care for a newborn, and let teenagers experience being awakened in the wee hours by a wailing infant so perhaps they’ll think twice about pregnancy. Realityworks calls them RealCare babies and started producing them in 1994, when the dolls went by the name Baby Think It Over. The company has shipped more than 200,000 of them from the factory in Eau Claire that Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber visited on assignment in December. “I sometimes hear other photographers use the term ‘like shooting fish in a barrel,’ but this was babies in a barrel,” Gruber says. “They were everywhere.”
You can have your 7-pound, 21-inch-long anatomically correct bundles of joy in one of seven ethnicities. They cry, coo and poo like a real newborn, and follow one of 15 pre-programmed schedules guaranteed to rob you of sleep. Internal sensors sync with a computer to let everyone know how good (or bad) a parent you are. “The educator can get a full report on the students’ experience—how often it was cared for, neglected, abused, [the] temperature, clothing it was wearing, how long it sat in a car seat and so on,” says Realityworks spokesperson Samantha Forehand. “It is a very smart baby.”
Ackerman and Gruber found themselves downright giddy as they arrived at the 40,000-square foot factory, where they watched babies come to life. The company starts with dolls made in the US and China, and employees at various workstations add a rechargeable battery and circuit board, then install sensors in the head, neck, and stomach. Then it’s time for quality control, where workers subject the babies to things that would land a real parent in jail, or at least prompt an interview with child protective services.
Watching workers gingerly handle each doll like a real baby, then suddenly dangle it by the foot or rip a circuit board from its back amused the photographers to no end. Employees embrace the weirdness by festooning workstations with baby parts or creating freaks like Avatar Baby. Broken or otherwise unusable parts go into giant cardboard boxes to be melted down and recycled. The photographers found it all funny, if not a little nightmarish. “The babies look real. They have a very human look,” Ackerman says. “So to see them piled in boxes or wrapped in plastic and a lady hitting them with a hammer is … I dunno. Weird.” Or, as weird as you’d expect from a factory full of babies.
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