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Thursday, 1 March, 2001, 18:05 GMT
Robot pets get domesticated
Aibo Sony
Aibo: A robot dog with a malleable mind
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

The good thing about a robot pet is that you do not have to feed it or take it for walks, and it does not stain the carpet. And soon you will be able to change its personality to suit your mood.

The Aibo has got the headroom for growth

Nick Twyman, Sony Entertainment Robots Europe
Sony is starting to develop programs that let owners of its Aibo electronic pets alter the robots' behaviour and basic instincts.

Owners will be able to tinker with the robo-animals' reactions to being stroked or talked to, and even turn the plastic pooches into helpers around the house.

Soon, software packages will be available that let the Aibo pets play cards or read books.

Robot reactions

Sony unveiled the ERS-210, the second generation of its Aibo (the word means companion in Japanese) robotic pet, in October last year. An ERS-210 sells for 1,059 ($1,536).

Both generations of the robot dog have been hugely successful, and Sony claims to have sold nearly 100,000 units.

Now, the company is starting to release software that gives owners even more control over their computerised animals. Sony says the kits are the first in a series that will let owners customise almost any aspect of the robots' behaviour.

The personality and development of the Aibo robot can already be changed by using memory cards that either give it a puppy-like personality that develops as it is played with, or one that turns the creature into a fully "mature" animal.

Memory stick

"Physically, every Aibo is the same," said Nick Twyman, director of Sony Entertainment Robots Europe, "but every one ends up different because they have different experiences."

Furby AP
A Furby: A target of hackers
This month, Sony is planning to release software that lets owners generate their own programs for the Aibo.

Owners will be able to work out sequences of movements for their Aibo or change how the robot reacts to being stroked or talked to. "The Aibo has got the headroom for growth," said Mr Twyman.

The software will run on a desktop PC and finished programs can be put on a memory stick for slotting into the robot dog.

Also under development is a wireless link that will make it easier to download information to the pet. The development could lead to a remote control for other household appliances that follow you around.

Creature comforts

Sony is also producing a developer's kit for software companies that will provide much more information about the workings of the robot so that they can create even more sophisticated programs for Aibo.

Mr Twyman said that already in Japan some companies had produced software to let an Aibo play card games such as poker or blackjack, and even to read a book.

Sony has started consulting members of Aibo owner clubs, which are starting to spring up around the world, for guidance about how to develop the pet and any future robotic creatures or companions.

"We have users sharing notes about the stage their Aibo is at, the tricks they have learned and how they are getting along," said Mr Twyman.

One user group has produced a program that gives an Aibo the personality of the wisecracking robot Bender from the cartoon Futurama created by Matt Groening, the man behind The Simpsons.

The Aibo is not the first gadget to be hacked and tinkered with by technology enthusiasts. Many hardware hackers incurred the wrath of Tiger Electronics, makers of the Furby, by investigating the electronics inside the twittering, hairy toy and publishing the results of what they found on the net.

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