A Cat That Doesn't Need a Litter Box
By Edmund Klamann
Japan's biggest toymaker pioneered the world's first virtual pet, the
Tamagotchi, and the nation's most famous electronics maker rolled out the No.
1 robot dog, Aibo.
Now one of its biggest makers of automated factory systems, Omron Corp, has
weighed in with a robot cat: NeCoRo.
Like most household cats, it doesn't respond to commands or perform tricks.
Nor can it walk, but Omron officials said it does what is most important:
purring contentedly when stroked, and otherwise giving cuddly emotional
feedback to its owner with feline sounds and movements.
"Individual contact was our priority," Toshihiro Tashima, head of Omron's
e-pet project, said at the robot cat's coming-out party today.
For Japanese Cat-Lovers Only
Only 5,000 of the acrylic-furred felines will be up for sale, and only in
Japan, with a retail list price of 185,000 yen ($1,530) each.
That compares with 98,000 yen for the latest version of Sony Corp's Aibo pets,
which can recognize 75 simple words, take photos and mimic human intonation.
When it debuted in 1999, a limited offer of 3,000 Aibos sold out over the
Internet in Japan in less than 20 minutes, commanding 250,000 yen a piece.
For Japan's mechanical cat-lovers, NeCoRo, whose name derives from the
Japanese for cat, will be available at select Takashimaya department stores or
over the Internet at http//:www.necoro.com.
A Petable Pelt
The robot pet has tactile sensors behind and beneath its ears and on its back,
where cats are particularly sensitive, as well as audio and visual sensors
enabling it to recognize loud noises, sudden movements or the calling of its
Its "vocabulary" includes 48 different cat noises. It can also perk up its
ears, squint its eyes, tilt its head or stretch its legs to express such
feelings as surprise or fatigue.
NeCoRo's most difficult achievement, Tashima said, was the fake-fur skin that
expands and contracts with its various body movements and facial expressions.
And like Bandai Co Ltd's hit Tamagotchi - a small, egg-shaped toy displaying a
virtual bird that requires virtual care and feeding - NeCoRo will develop
personality traits based on how it is treated by its owner.
"If you hold it a lot, it'll develop a gentle personality, but if you don't
play with it much, it'll ignore you," Tashima said.
>From Fake Cats to Smarter ATMs
Omron, known for sensor technology used in products from factory tools to
automatic tellers, also hoped the artificial intelligence and other
technologies tested in NeCoRo would find applications in more practical items,
such as user-friendly vending machines for train tickets.
"As machines become a bit smarter, they'll be easier to use," Tashima said.
Omron executives also acknowledged that NeCoRo had room for improvement,
although they disclosed no concrete plans for future generations.
"We'll decide on our next step depending on how the market reacts to this,"
--- --- --- --- ---
Useless hypotheses, etc.:
consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego, human values, scientific relinquishment
We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.
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