- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

Either the world has gone interestingly mad, or I have. Maybe both. But I like the little critter.
Aibo, I mean Sony's mechanical dog or, as the company calls it, "entertainment robot." Entertaining it certainly looks to be.
Aibo (www.aibo.com), a battery-powered pooch that acts like a dog and appeals to the gadget-mad, has been around awhile.
It just got more doglike, and maybe a bit eerie. There is enough engineering and technology in the thing that it begins to sneak up on the science-fiction dream of robots that you could, well, hang out with. For about $1,300, it's quite a gadget.
Apart from motors, batteries (lithium ion) and computer, Aibo carries the following: head-touch sensor, camera, stereo microphone, speaker, chin-touch sensor, pause button, chest light, back-touch sensor, acceleration sensor, joints and a tail.
Aibo's no dummy.
Sony just added software that it says lets Aibo recognize your face, name and voice. It will pick you out of a crowd. This is smarter than some dogs I have met.
None of it is cutting-edge technology. You can buy good voice-recognition software at any computer store for about $50. Image recognition by computer is not new. But packing all of this together in a three-and-a-half-pound robot dog is clever.
"Turn left, Aibo," you say. Whereupon it does.
It gets crazier. When the beast feels its juices ebbing, it will run back to its charger to pump up its batteries. It's getting to be autonomous.
As a really slick toy, it is, well, charming. It looks to be a step toward things much more interesting. Here we need to look at an aspect of the theory of robots.
Decades ago, as the idea of practical robots started to appear possible, people debated how they should be designed. One proposed model was the artificial human that would do what it was told. (Except that in science-fiction movies, they usually didn't.)
The other model was the special-purpose robot that did only one thing. An example is the industrial robot that is made up of one arm and drills holes in auto bodies. These special-purpose robots won in industry, being cheaper and easier to build.
Increasingly it is possible to make free-standing (or maybe free-wandering) robots that approximate living creatures.
"By infusing Aibo with increased artificial intelligence, such as voice and face recognition, we are expanding the autonomous functionality of the Entertainment Robot product line," said Victor Matsuda, president of Entertainment Robot America. "With Aibo Recognition software, Aibo will now be even more petlike, giving owners the ability to interact with a robot like never before."
I get the impression that Sony would like people to bond with Aibo the way they do with real dogs. "From the first day you interact, Aibo will become your companion," says the Web site. That raises an interesting question: How much can, or should, people become attached to machines?
What happens when an electronic pup-dog with an appealing grin follows you around, jumps up your leg in greeting, and does what you tell it to do? "Fido, get me my slippers." We are not at a great remove from being able to do this.
The automatic man-servant who acts likes a human butler may be closer than one might think. Honda (world.honda.com/robot) has a humanoid robot that isn't all that far from being a practical Jeeves.
The Honda robot looks clunky. I've seen a Japanese experimental robot (what happened to the United States in robotics?) that walked like a man and moved its arms and legs while doing so.
Put all of this together sensors, computers, vision, voice recognition, natural motion and where are we?

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