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A Brief History of Robotic Pets: From Rags to Pleo

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Robotic pets are no longer just a figment of our cinematic imagination. Remember the dog "Rags'' from the 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper? Set in the distant future - 2173 - Rags was the robotic dog who "barked'' in a clearly human voice, "Woof, woof. Hello, I'm Rags.''

More "sensitive'' and emotional than the monotone, hilariously repetitive Rags, today's robotic pets exhibit biological cravings (hunger and sleep) and show their emotional preferences (many like to be stroked). But can we really program the inherently unpredictable behavior of real live (carpet-staining) animals? Can emotionally satisfying bonds between robots and people be formed?

Yes, according to companies such as the California-based UGOBE, which launched its first Life Form Operating System (LFOS) in December of 2007. Using the latest research in physics, biology, robotics, sociology and philosophy (among other disciplines), the pet dinosaur Pleo, equipped with 32-bit microprocessors and more than 100 custom-designed gears, may just be the first "autonomous'' life form of its kind.

Robotic pets before Pleo:

  • In 1998, people waited in line to buy the gremlin-like robotic pet "Furby.'' More than 40 million tiny Furby "units'' were sold all over the world, generating more than a billion dollars in sales. Furby's creator, Caleb Chung, went on to invent Pleo with parent company UGOBE.
  • In 1999, Sony launched AIBO (the word means companion in Japanese), a rather uptown robotic pooch who sold for more than $2,000 each. While the electronic dog was used in medical research that eventually confirmed emotional (and even some physical) benefits of robotic pet companionship for seniors and disabled populations, the product was discontinued in 2006 (but some are still available on e-Bay).
  • In 2007, Keijo Lahetkangas developed robotic dogs named Puppy and Rover. Whereas AIBO had no eyes (a common customer complaint), Puppy does -- and watches the world through a built-in camera. A quick note for any techies out there: The N800 hardware guiding Puppy is "open source.''
  • Other robotic pets have included FurReal cat, the Roboraptor, the Robosapien, NeCoRo the catbot from Omron, and Paro the seal.

What makes Pleo different?

So what makes Pleo, modeled after a one-week-old infant Camarasuarus (of the Jurassic period), so different? First, UGOBE claims that no two Pleos are alike. Pleo "grows up'' in stages -- hatchling, infant, and juvenile -- and develops its unique personality according to the particular circumstances of its environment, mainly determined by the attentiveness and affection of its owner.

Chung set out to "create an object with empathy.'' And the $349 Pleo can look happy or sad. Pleo sniffs, sighs, trembles, sneezes, coos, snuggles, snores, coughs, sleeps, sometimes even dreams and cries when frightened or hungry.

Yet, can batteries and wires ever match the wonder and emotion triggered by holding a four-week-old puppy or kitten in your arms?

Perhaps not, but robotic pets DO seem to provide real comfort and companionship, even health benefits, particularly in places like senior centers where real animals might not be permitted. Moreover, in the future, robotic pets might help to dispense crucial medicine on time or remain alert to possible accidents with high-risk patients.

According to the American Medical Director's Association, a March 2008 study concluded that "interactive robotic dogs can reduce loneliness in those living in long-term care facilities.''

As for Pleo, so far the baby dinosaur has received mixed reviews ranging from "cute," "charming'' and "upgradeable'' to disappointment over a limited battery life (little more than an hour) and warnings about the product's eventual skin problems (baby powder apparently does wonders).

Perhaps one Pleo reviewer's sentiment might ring surprisingly true for "real'' pet owners. "After admitting the baby dinosaur's shortcomings," one owner writes, "I just love the little fella.''

Buy your own Pleo dinosaur.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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