Robot Dog 'Bugs' Inventor
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
Rodney Brooks, of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, is well known
as the pioneer of this simpler approach, which he calls "behavior-based"
When he constructed his first behavior-based robot 15 years ago, Brooks'
colleagues thought it was, literally, too stupid to be worth much. "I didn't
have heaps of mathematical logic," he said. "They thought it couldn't be
The robot, named Gingus, was a six-legged walker. Each leg was operated by a
simple, independent circuit connected to a sensor on the foot. When the sensor
was on the ground, the circuit would instruct the leg to push down and back;
when in the air, to kick forward, and so on.
With each leg working independently, Gingus was able to climb over things, and
navigate through a crowd, and do it quickly. It took Gingus only seconds to do
what its computer-based, big-brained rivals took 15 minutes of "thinking" to
achieve, Brooks said.
"The traditional AI system tries to extract info from the world, model it,
then cope in it," Brooks said, "whereas behavioral systems react to the world
Tilden said this direct link to the world is what gives his bug toys their
lifelike reaction to each other, people and the world, and makes them so much
"The cool thing about my devices is that they do what they do by themselves,"
Tilden said. "They have more interactive responsibility than an Aibo. If you
ignore it, it gives a death scream. If you attack the bug, it will respond to
you, based on how you play with it."
Unlike an Aibo, the B.I.O. bugs aren't programmed to perform complex responses
(the newest Aibo can actually respond to verbal commands). Instead, their
reactions are the result of an unpredictable stew of signals from the bug's
independent circuits and sensors.
The complexity of the bugs' behavior that results from the interaction of
these relatively simple circuits is something that would "take you ages to
program," Tilden said.
Pat Powers is not a scientist, but as sales director at the Mondo-tronics
online robot store, he knows his robot toys. His store had a booth set up for
kids to play with the new B.I.O. bugs a few weeks ago and at the Exploratorium
in San Francisco.
"The kids were pretty mesmerized," Powers said. "The technology is pretty
deep. Their ability to learn is pretty neat, especially for the price."
There are four different "species" of B.I.O. bug, with differing
characteristics -- one is more aggressive, another more sturdy, another quick.
They are designed to "herd" with their kind and battle with other species by,
as Tilden himself put it, "stomping on the other one's head."
Infrared sensors allow the bugs to detect obstacles and find each other. They
work autonomously or by remote control.
In the laboratory, behavior-based robots have already proven themselves more
mobile and agile in rough terrain than their more complicated -- and far more
expensive -- computer-centric rivals.
University of California at Berkeley's Bob Full helped build a behavior-based
robot that is the first to be able to walk through surf at the beach. He is
also working on a robotic cockroach. The ultimate goal is to create robots for
search and rescue and space exploration.
Like Tilden, Full's work has been focused on building robots with "smart
bodies" rather than big brains. "What controls these robots is built into the
smartness of their structure, not the brain," he said.
"In building these toys," Full said, "Tilden has showed that with very simple
nervous systems, you could get robots to move in a complex environment. We've
taken this (concept) to a point where the performance is better than previous
robots. I don't think anyone believed we could have gotten this much
Despite the rivalry between traditional and behavior-based robots, experts
agree that, ultimately, the robots of the future will be a combination of the
concepts underlying the B.I.O. bugs and the Aibo. They will have smart bodies
and powerful processors for a brain.
"The analog stuff (Tilden's design) is good as an emulation of simple living
creatures," Brooks said, "but digital is going to be the way to build higher
--- --- --- --- ---
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, malevolent AI
We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.
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