AT LARGE: Man's best friend

AT LARGE: Man's best friend

The other day, my mother was talking to her great-nephew, my godson, about what he would like for Christmas. He's four, so his ambitions are modest.

"A puppy", he said.

"Oh, I don't think your Mum would like that," she said.

He persisted. "A puppy like your one," he said, referring to my mother's dog, a spaniel called Wagner.

"Well," she replied, "when Wagner gets a wife, we might have some puppies just like him, and maybe I'll talk to your Mum about it then."

I voiced the opinion that this little boy's Mum would not want a puppy around the place in addition to her five children, regardless of how charming the little feller might be. My sister, overhearing the conversation, suggested, "maybe you should get him one of those robot dogs".

I suspect that he would be bitterly disappointed if this happened. Sony announced this past week the new-generation Aibo, affectionately dubbed the ERS-220 (anyone who thinks "Wagner" is a lousy name for a dog, take note - it could have been worse). The ERS-220 is based around the same torso as the previous Aibo, but has a newly designed head with 23 blinking lights and a retractable headlight. It also lacks a tail, and its ears do not wiggle.

And, aside from all that, it's really ugly.

The models of Aibo released only a couple of months ago were called "Latte" and "Macaron" - cute names. The devices themselves were cute and round also. I hesitate before calling them "affectionate", but their software did a reasonable, if clunky, imitation of affection.

The software for the ERS-220 is able to make the device appear "excited, curious and alert" when its owner is talking. In a puppy, this is sweet. In an Aibo Macaron, this is impressive. In something that looks like a nasty alien probe droid, it's disturbing. I don't want anything with a retractable headlight to appear curious about me.

It marks a dramatic turn for Sony, which has up until now concentrated on making sophisticated technology fit in better with existing lifestyles. It has disguised its technology to appear less intimidating.

Now, there is no pretence that Aibo is a dog, or even a simulation of a dog. Aibo is a robot, and if you buy one, you are inviting a robot to come and stay.

Perhaps I'm being paranoid. Perhaps giving one of these devices to a child of four will help prepare him for the mechanical simulations of love that he can expect once he reaches the adult world, and maybe that's healthy.

He won't be getting one from me.

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