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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Pleo: The New Robotic "Designer Life Form"

Pleo Right SideThe next big “must-have” toy this year, may be in the form of a one-week old baby Camarasaurus. One of the co-creators of Furby, Caleb Chung, is putting the finishing touches on a new animatronic dinosaur called Pleo. Eight years ago the Furby doll was all the rage, with sales of over 40 million units. Chung’s Emeryville, California-based start-up, Ugobe (a play on words meaning You Go Become), will be manufacturing Pleo, which is scheduled to hit retail shelves in Q3 2006 just in time for the holidays. 49-year-old Chung, dubbed a ‘modern Gepetto’ by Wired magazine, chooses to design toys in isolation at his Boise, Idaho home, away from the rest of his Bay Area staff. He envisions Pleo as more than just another robotic toy. The main objective of Pleo is to create an emotional attachment with its owner. Ugobe reps say that if you play with it long enough, Pleo will learn just like a dog, cat or small child. Pleo moves just like you'd expect a baby dinosaur to move, and not a robot (although who really knows how a baby dinosaur moved?). If you think that Furby was ‘smart’, you’ll be impressed (or creeped out) when you hear that Pleo will have seven computer brains that control 14 servos and 38 sensors compared to Furby’s two computer brains. This is a quantum leap from the Artificial Intelligence implemented in toys like Furby and Sony's ill-fated, Aibo robot dog. Pleo is the first of a line of “designer life forms” that Chung and Ugobe plan to create that combine the latest in artificial intelligence, robotics, mechanical engineering and toy design. Pleo will have ”neural network'' software -- a program that behaves in a brain-like way as it processes many pieces of information to determine its actions. Another interesting note: Pleo does not have an on/off switch.

All of this cutting-edge technology packed into a 20-inch, Jurassic dinosaur toy seems a great new line of toys or the start of something pretty disturbing. First it’s robotic dinosaurs, what next? The next logical step in the progression of this technology will probably be humanoid “designer life forms.” The main objective of creating an emotional attachment between owner and robot, reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode called “The Lonely.” In this particular episode set in The Lonely Picturethe future, Jack Warden stars as Corry, a criminal from the future, who has been sentenced to solitary confinement for fifty years on a penal asteroid (he has the whole barren asteroid to himself). The captain of a passing freighter, who sympathizes with him, leaves him a box containing a female robot named Alicia (played by Jean Marsh). Warden doesn't take to her at first, but soon he grows very fond of her, and eventually falls in love with her (they only showed him playing checkers and eating dinner with her, but do the math). After a few months go by, the captain of the freighter returns bearing good news: Warden's been pardoned and is free to leave. However, weight restrictions do not permit him to take Alicia with him. Warden doesn't want to leave her, because he feels that she really is a woman. The captain takes out a gun and blows Alicia's face off, pointing out to Warden that all he's leaving behind is loneliness. This Twilight Zone episode is an extreme example of the emotional dynamic that can possibly transpire between people and machines. As the level of complexity and sophistication of robots increases, forming emotional attachments to them will be come easier. Breaking those attachments will become more difficult because robots will be perceived as being “alive” in some small way.

Think about it. What IS the exit strategy to emotionally detach owners from their Pleos? Taking a page from the Twilight Zone book of solutions, there just may be a market for a 5 kg, Cretaceous Period, asteroid to put these pesky little Pleos down realistically… a new, functional, 21st Century version of the Pet Rock. It’s just a thought. Pleo will sport SD memory expansion and will set you back a mere $200.

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