A couple of years ago, I got to spend a few months owning/operating an AIBO, one of those Sony robotic dogs. It was a surreal experience -- it behaved just enough like a real dog to make me feel odd whenever I treated it like an electronic toy. As a substitute companion it wasn't all that compelling (at least for me), but as a demonstration of how sophisticated independent robotics has become, it was fascinating.
If only I had been more of a hardware hacker, I could have done something more exciting with the AIBO than let it chase a pink ball. For example, Yale engineering students use toy-robot dogs as platforms on which to build pack-based mobile environmental sensors:
The feral dogs have a simple communication system added in their adaptation, that allows the coordinate behavior of a pack. The dogs will cover different portions of a terrain (maintaining a radius) for effective space filling, but will converge if one dog gets a particularly strong signal. This functionality is intended to provide information that is displayed in a form that is legible to diverse participants i.e. the movement of the dogs. The dogs paths provide immediate imagery to sustain discussion and interpretation of an otherwise imperceptible environmental condition of interest (e.g. radioactivity; air quality issues and the re-opening of English powerstation; class-based environmental discrimination). Because the dog’s space-filling logic emulates a familiar behavior, i.e. they appear to be “sniffing something out”, participants can watch and try to make sense of this data without the technical or scientific training required to be comfortable interpreting a EPA document on the same material.
The animal-like behavior, then, becomes a mode of communication -- we interpret the actions of the pack of mobile sensors the way we would a pack of dogs.
The Feral Robotic Dog project is an ongoing series of classes, but the instructional material is all available online. If you have one of the various models of toy-robot dogs, and were wondering just how you could make it do something more than sit up and bark, here's your answer.
Hey - now I need a few AIBOs in a Beowulf cluster so I can... well... so I can... umm... Well, I need them. :)