Just a couple of weeks after R2D2 and C3PO clicked and whirred their way back into public consciousness with the release of the latest “Star Wars” movie, Sony Corp. unveiled a rich person’s toy that may be the best preview humanity has yet had of real-life “droids” to come. It was an instant hit, too. Within hours of going on sale on the Internet June 1, well-heeled customers in Japan and the United States had snapped up all 5,000 available units of Sony’s simulated doggy, “Aibo” — a clever nickname that combines the acronym for artificial intelligence with a shorthand reference to “robot” to form the Japanese word for “buddy.”

Questions flew immediately.

First, why did Sony give Aibo a metal body? Don’t they know that real dogs come with hair and adorably soft ears? This cold canine will not shed all over the tatami, and it is guaranteed hypoallergenic, but you wouldn’t want it snuggling up next to you in bed.

Second, what kind of person shells out 250,000 yen or $2,500 for a mechanical dog? For the same price, Japanese buyers could have had a real, live, show-quality purebred; the Americans could have bought two or three or, better yet, picked up an authentic mutt for free from their local pound.

On both counts, one suspects that the purchasers of Sony’s battery-operated, metallic pooch were not looking for canine companions at all, but for the status that comes with owning a limited-edition bit of cutting-edge technology. People who like dogs — their sincerity, their simplicity, their sheer, good-hearted, slobbery eagerness — are probably not the same personality type at all as people who like those hard-edged, cold-hearted, complex, frustrating things we call computers. Which suggests that if Sony is looking to tap into the pet market with its bootable “Buddy,” it may be barking up the wrong tree. The same goes for the infinitely more sophisticated robotic kitten “Robokoneko,” featuring an actual artificial brain, which is scheduled for development by a Kyoto research team by the year 2001.

The truth is that the canine or feline exoskeletons that house these amazing robots are really just publicity gimmicks; given their cost, they will never be the money spinners that best-selling toys like the Tamagotchi were. There is no harm in gimmickry. What is a shame, however, is the tendency for Aibo and “home-entertainment robots” like it to generate the wrong kind of attention and spark the wrong kind of debate. Despite its simulated lovableness, its come-hither, flashing green eyes and what Sony calls its “highly expressive legs,” the significance of Aibo is not that it is cute, or even amusing. And arguments about whether real puppies are better than robopuppies, and vice versa, miss the point entirely.

Behind Aibo and other glamorous cybertoys there is already a whole army of anonymous robotic workhorses toiling away for humanity’s benefit. Robots — most of them originating in Japan — build cars, perform remote-controlled surgery, milk cows, monitor animal health, act as sheep dogs, track land mines, fly into space, explore other planets and carry out scores of other useful jobs. Most are “biomorphic,” which means they look more or less like animals or human beings — not to enhance their appeal, but because arms and legs and fingers and eyes are irreplaceably useful appendages. Some are not biomorphic: When world chess champion Garry Kasparov took on Deep Blue, he did not sit across from an android, which might have been less unnerving. But they all in one way or another simulate biological operating principles.

The significance of Aibo is that it focuses public attention on this whole burgeoning field of artificial intelligence and robotics, alerting us to what lies in the future. If we are amazed by Aibo, what are we to make of the research being carried out in the Kyoto lab that is developing Robokoneko? According to its director, Dr. Hugo de Garis, scientists already possess the knowledge and techniques that will enable human beings eventually to spawn a whole “race” of independent, superpowerful, embodied brains. When a Sony spokesman in the U.S. pointed out last week that “Aibo is not just a toy. . . . It’s a robot. It’s entertainment. It’s about life in the next century,” he may have been only two-thirds right. Aibo is indeed more than a toy. It is a portent, an augury, of a time when our friendly, helpful, hardworking robots may get up and walk away.

But as far as Dr. de Garis is concerned — and who should know better? — that prospect is not even remotely entertaining. It is, he says, “scary, very scary.”

Perhaps we had better enjoy Aibo while we can.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.