TCS Daily

Sex-Tech, Just in Time for Christmas

By James Pinkerton - December 11, 2000 12:00 AM

Why fight the future? Get an Aibo. It's where the world is headed. For even if a pet-bot leaves you cold, it might prepare you for the sexpot-bots heading our way to heat up the coming century.

Aibo to SDR-3X? Today the Aibo, tomorrow...
Aibo, of course, is the "Entertainment Robot" from Sony; it is the second generation of this techno-critter, and it debuted at the Comdex show in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. Having been there at the Convention Center next to the Hilton, I can attest that Aibo was a hit. Ungrizzled geeks stopped mooning over the latest wireless PDA to stare admiringly as these plastic quadrupeds gamboled and frolicked in their little cyber-pen - a post-modern petting zoo - at the Sony pavilion.

Nothing else at Comdex could be petted; although the merchandise outside the convention center was a different story. And nothing else in Vegas would move its ears and wag its tail and light up its bi-colored LED display in friendly response.

Aibo looks mostly like a dog, but it has some of the prance of a cat. It's 10 inches high, 10 inches long and weighs 3.3 pounds (including battery and memory stick). More importantly, it's got canine and feline moves. It will dip its head, bounce on its little legs, even roll over on its back. My dog, Mr. Bean, can do those tricks, too, although if Mr. Bean knows 50 words of command, as Aibo does, he certainly hasn't let that on to me.

Indeed, in some ways, it's demonstrably better than a mammal. It can take pictures, using a little camera in its head. It never sheds or bites or poops, except for its lithium-ion battery, which poops out after a mere 90 minutes. But it comes at a purebred price, $1,500, and that's without options and accessories, such as AIBO-ware that will teach the dog-bot to play games such as "rock, paper, scissors." That can add another $1,000. Still, sales are brisk; in the Washington, D.C., area, Aibo has sold out.

But is Aibo warm and fuzzy enough? Does it engender "biophilia"? That was the title of a 1986 book by the eminent Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. He described biophilia as "the innate tendency in human beings to focus on life and lifelike process."

Besides, isn't there also technophilia? That could be described as the "innate tendency in human beings to focus on the amount of horsepower, wattage, or memory in a given piece of machinery." Technophilia might explain the emergence of shows such as "Battlebots" on Comedy Central, featuring robots that smash each other to pieces. You could call it a WWF-style "Raw is War" for techies.

And then there's the other end of the gender gap. A company in Cambridge, Mass., iRobot, is producing My Real Baby Doll. It's an animatronic toy, complete with human facial expressions, that sells for a mere $100.

And just last week, at the Robodex convention in Yokohama, Japan, Sony unveiled the SDR 3X, a biped prototype that stands 20 inches tall and weighs 10 pounds. It can walk 50 feet per minute, recognizes about 20 words, and speaks 20 others. At the same show, rival Honda displayed Asimo, which is 4 feet tall and can dance as well as walk.

But something tells me that Sony has bigger fish to fry than just walking, talking toys. The Japanese government may be totally incompetent, but Japan Inc. has more than its share of visionaries. The late Akio Morita once produced a 240-year business plan for Sony. Somewhere short of that, the real payoff in robotics is likely to emerge.

Some clues to what Sony may be planning might be found in the title of the just-unveiled SDR-3X. "SDR" stands for "Sony Dream Robot," and "3X," of course, is another way of expressing the "xxx" that marks the spot for smut.

Indeed, the history of earlier technologies, notably the VCR and E-commerce, suggests that sex is the spearhead that points the way to profitable mass acceptance. Yes, robots have their industrial uses, but the first robots around the house may well be high-tech Swedish blow-up dolls. If one squints at Barbie (or Ken, for those with a different point of view) and combines that sexy look with a certain degree of robot- responsiveness, then the business plan writes itself.

But isn't that disgusting to most people? Sure, but in a free market, entrepreneurs charge forward regardless, seeking out, er, niche markets to be filled.

Of course, robots have always had a sexy side. In 1981, British sci-fi novelist Tanith Lee published The Silver Metal Lover, the title of which needs no elaboration. Many films have featured lust-bots, from "Metropolis" (1926) to "Blade Runner" (1982). In the 1999 movie "Bicentennial Man," based on an Isaac Asimov novel, Robin Williams plays a robot that marries a human.

But another 1999 film, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," reminds us that imaginative extrapolators see danger, too. In that movie, Elizabeth Hurley turns out to be a 'bot, firing bullets at poor Mike Myers out of her breasts. Indeed, the work that gave the world the word "robot," Karel Capek's 1921 play "R.U.R." (Rossum's Universal Robots), climaxes with a robot rebellion.

Ever since, robots are always to be watched closely; the 2000 film "Red Planet" features AMEE (Autonomous Mapping Evaluation and Evasion), a four-legged robot, which, come to think of it, looks a lot like a super-advanced Aibo. It goes berserk and tries to kill its human creators.

Some would say that a degree of danger is part of the appeal of sex, but no doubt liability-conscious corporations will be at pains to keep their products docile.

Furthermore, robotics is not likely to have the "adult" market to itself. The race to please consumers with new technologies will probably run on more than one technological track. The new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, "The Sixth Day," features two other distinct funnels of technological development. The first is cloning; in this particular instance, bioduplication includes the capacity quickly to regenerate the hardbodies of sexy assassins. Second, a holographic girlfriend plays a small part in the film; the woman may be some form of virtual reality, but she appears to be real enough in the film. And of course, another Schwarzenegger movie, "Total Recall" (1990) posits a future in which happy memories of events that never happened are simply implanted in one's brain.

Will tech-sex in any form - robot, clone, virtual reality, or direct cortical stimulus - be good for the individual? For society? If the trends represented by Aibo's increased sophistication continue, we'll get the answer in a decade or two. But this much is clear: capitalism and technology are about to create a market alternative to the age-old war of he sexes.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday, a contributor to FoxNews, and an adjunct fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.

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