Man’s Best ‘Bot


Q: Since I live in your typical shoebox-sized New York apartment, having a dog is pretty much out of the question. Still, my heart aches for some nonhuman companionship. Could a robotic pet do the trick?

Mechanical animals are getting more lifelike all the time, though they’re a long ways off from supplanting their living, breathing, slobbering counterparts. Even the cleverest robotic canine won’t snag your errant Frisbee tosses, nor lovingly fetch your slippers on a chilly Sunday morning. But a few elite models have enough of a knack for puppyish antics that you might forget you’re snuggling up to a jumble of circuits.

Anyone strolling through a Toys “R” Us lately has likely come across such budget robo-beasts as Tiger Electronics’ i-Cybie or Manley’s Tekno the Robotic Puppy. The critters appear vaguely mutt-like—Tekno looks like a cross-pollination of Snoopy and a skinless Terminator cyborg—and can perform very basic tricks in response to voice commands. But chances are you’ll tire quickly of their limited repertoires and creaky movements, banishing them to the closet with your “Hungry Hungry Hippos” set.

Though Mr. Roboto rarely recommends fiscal excess, the “you get what you pay for” axiom applies to robotic pets. So if you’ve got $1500 to spare, it’s best to splurge on a Sony AIBO (rhymes with “Tae-Bo”), the champagne of mechanized pooches. Powered by a 64-bit microprocessor and equipped with flashing LED eyes, the AIBO ERS-210 is an expert mimic of emotions; it tweets when contented, and whimpers when it craves a gentle ear scratch. Sony’s engineers did a fine job with the locomotion, which is far more fluid than Tekno’s arthritic gait.

Software add-ons enable AIBO to perform some decidedly non-canine tricks, like snapping pictures with a built-in camera. A coterie of crafty AIBO devotees who hang at have developed programs that make the pup hula dance, pose along to Madonna’s “Vogue,” or curse like a South Park wiseass. Let’s see your Boston terrier do that.

Many AIBO owners insist their pets grow personalities as they “mature,” and it’s true AIBOs behave differently from one another—some prefer nudging around a ball to playing dead, or bark when others bleat. But don’t be conned into thinking yours is any brighter than a muskrat, not to mention an actual dog. “What it boils down to is that Sony’s done a really outstanding job of programming the robot to trick the user into believing there is a personality there,” says Douglas Thomas, a University of Southern California professor specializing in artificial intelligence. “Programmers agree that it can only learn what its programming tells it to do, but there are still people who swear they’ve taught it new tricks.”

The raging debate over AIBO’s chi has spawned its share of academic inquiry. A pair of University of Washington profs, Peter Kahn and Batya Friedman, got a National Science Foundation grant to study children’s interactions with AIBO. Their early findings might give you pause. “When we ask them whether they would want a robotic dog or a real dog, I’m just blown away because all the kids say they want to have a robot,” says Kahn. “They don’t have to feed it, they don’t have to walk it. . . . We’re starting to get concerned about the lack of moral reciprocity embedded in those interactions.” In other words, will the world be a poorer place if our tykes never hoist pooper-scoopers, or deal with a beloved pet’s demise?

If you’re looking to teach your kids—or even yourself—a thing or two about moral consequences, but you’re stuck with 600 square feet of living space, Mr. Roboto’s got one word for you: hamsters.

Should you prefer your pets thuggish rather than affectionate, Sanyo Japan recently debuted the prototype of the TS7, an 80-pound android anteater that protects your domicile against intruders. It paces your property line and scans for suspicious lights or motion; anything amiss will trigger an alarm beamed instantly to your mobile phone. Whatever you shout into the handset—”Git the hell off my lawn!” perhaps—is then blared over the robot’s speakers. Don’t put your pit bull out to stud quite yet, though—the TS7 won’t be commercially available until 2004.

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