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B.I.O. Bugs: Wired News review

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 mechanical hound.

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.