Sensors and Actuators Evoke the Human Response

Last week a dog became extinct. This week a baby dinosaur made its debut. (Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.) People's reactions to both events had much to do with sensors and actuators. Come to think of it, people's reactions to other consumer products such as cars, and industrial automation applications, increasingly trace their roots to sensors and actuators too.

The dog in question is Sony's Aibo, the $2000 robotic pet that, according to an AP report on CNN, was the world's first mass-marketed robot. Sony, it seems, finds it necessary to restructure in order to compete in today's market, and has halted its robot production as a result.

The Illusion of Personality
Aibo's sensors, artificial intelligence software, and actuators allow it to recognize faces, and, says the CNN/AP report, to deliver "an amusing illusion of spontaneity and personality . . . The robots' charm comes in part from how their behavior somewhat reflects how they've been treated by their masters. It knows when its behavior is being praised because it has a sensor on its head that recognizes when it's being petted."

Though only 150,000 of the bots were sold, reaction to the news from Sony is strong, as owners have developed a strong connection to their "pets." The CNN/AP story quotes Richard Walkus, who has a Web site devoted to Aibo, as saying that Sony has "lost stature" as a result of the move.

More Sensors = More Lifelike
This week a similarly sized robotic pet, this one with a pricetag 1/10th that of Aibo's ($200), took the stage at the 16th annual DEMO conference in Phoenix. DEMO executive producer Chris Shipley says, "By using breakthrough materials, an array of sensors and programmed intelligence, [maker] Ugobe has created a unique animated form that challenges the relationship between human beings and nonliving creatures."

Pleo has the same lineage as Hasbro's Furby: both were invented by Caleb Chung. But whereas Furby (which made a rebound last fall) reportedly sports just one motor and microprocessor, Pleo boasts eight processors that control 14 motors and receive signals from 38 sensors--plus AI software that lets it learn from its experiences.

According to a report in The Age, an Australian newspaper, Pleo "made a cautious debut as it sensed its environment, a small table on a large stage. After a few seconds, its movements began to resemble a living object waking up." The report quotes inventor Chung as saying, "In a technical sense he's calibrating his servos, but we like to call it stretching."

Sensors Make The Connection
What endears these robotic toys to consumers—and what increasingly endears car owners to their vehicles (and, dare I say, plant managers to their production lines)—comes down to sensors. Working in conjunction with processors, actuators, and software, sensors make the all-important human connection, providing the data necessary for appropriate actions.

The Age report observed that Pleo "reacts to touch, walks about on its four legs and shows emotion . . . [It] expresses sadness and disappointment by gently lowering its head and tail when it's ignored. Rub its rubbery back or poke its feet, and the 1.5 kg dinosaur springs back to life just like something made of flesh and blood." Awwww.

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