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Walk on the Wild Side with Robot Babies

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

by Tim Moran

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It was only a matter of time, really.

If it exists in the "human" world, chances are it will one day exist in the robot world. We've seen the dawn of an Internet for robots (RoboEarth), the creation of robot avatars that can stand in for mere humans, and the spread of cyborg rat-robot hybrids. Now let's welcome into our midst the robot baby--or shall I say, babies, for they are siblings.

Meet Pneuborn-7II and Pneuborn-13, the progeny of researchers at Osaka University's Hosoda Lab. (The names are a play on the pneumatic muscles used as actuators throughout their bodies.) Little "7II" is about the size of a seven-month-old infant and is designed to study motor development. Baby 7II contains a learning algorithm that allows the tot to crawl forward and roll over. Brother (or sister?) "13" models a 13-month-old child and is designed to study the effect the musculoskeletal structure has on the emergence of bipedal walking.

Clearly, these robots are made for research and not home use, as were some others, such as the eventually euthanized Sony Aibo; nor are they meant to show off what really rad robots can do, such as Boston Dynamics' Big Dog. And, thank heaven they are not supposed to in any way be substitutes for real live children--although, looking far enough out. . . .one never knows.

We take some comfort, therefore, in the words of Sony general manager Tadashi Otsuki, who made it clear that its Aibo would never, could never, substitute for a real dog: "It is technically impossible to replace real animals with robots. In a sense, it would be a profanity to God."

Let's hope that, should there be commercial developers for the Pneuby twins, they believe that too. Although, the thought of pulling the plug on a screaming seven-month-old in the middle of the night has its charms.