A mechanical bug toy is fighting a robotic dog
for more than just space under the Christmas tree this year. The
two toys represent rival schools of thought vying for supremacy
in the quest for artificial intelligence.
Sony's Aibo dog represents the traditional approach to building
"intelligent" robots: give them a powerful computer
for a "brain." The Aibo relies on four processors and
complex programming to function in the world. It's like a walking
laptop. Add-on software, called AIBO Life, can make the fake hound
mimic emotions, instincts, growth and the ability to "learn."
This approach works, but it is expensive. An
original model Aibo costs about $1,500, although new models like
"Latte" are selling for just under $1,000.
Enter the upstart B.I.O. Mechanical Bugs from
Hasbro, which hit toy stores in September and sell for $40. Fans
and experts say these can herd, feed, flee, fight and even learn
on their own, and seem every bit as lifelike as Sony's far pricier
Christopher Byrne, a toy expert, is impressed
with the technological sophistication of the toys, which he found
to be "more fun" than the Aibo.
"They're wired to learn," Byrne said.
"You can put it in a box, and it can be stymied, then learn
to climb out, and it will remember the next time."
He expects the bugs to be especially popular
with young boys, combining their penchant for bugs, robots and
battle. "It's really cool to get (the bugs) to battle each
other," he said.
Unlike Aibo, the B.I.O. bugs don't rely on a
big computer brain to function. Although the bug-bots do use some
simple computer chips, their design is actually based on robots
that use only basic electronic circuitry to create "nervous
networks" that can behave in very lifelike ways. In short,
their genius lies in the body, and not the brain.
Mark Tilden designed the toys based on his 10
years of work as a roboticist and physicist with the federal lab
in Los Alamos, New Mexico. One of his projects was building robots
that could explore the surface of Mars for NASA.
The key to Tilden's approach is shedding the
notion that a good robot needs a powerful central processor --
a "brain" -- like humans have.
"Ninety-nine percent of creatures on this
planet do very well without a brain at all," Tilden said.
"I've tapped in to how they do that."
Tilden is not the only one eschewing digital
technology as the key to making artificially intelligent robots.
Over the past 15 years, other roboticists have built very effective
robots that don't require a motherboard or a hard drive.