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Inside was a footlong, three-pound machine that looked like a Jack Russell terrier wearing gray plastic armor. Sony Electronics had bred the robotic dog in its research laboratories in Japan; the name “Aibo” (pronounced EYE-bo) means “pal” or “companion” in Japanese and is also a rough acronym for Artificial Intelligence Robot. For weeks I’d been begging Sony officials to let me evaluate the computerized canine. In the past few years, toy companies have introduced an entire litter of electronic pets: Poo-Chi the Interactive Puppy (from Tiger Electronics), Tekno the Robotic Puppy (Manley Toy Quest) and Rocket the Wonder Dog (FisherPrice), to name just a few.

Today the original PC is a museum piece, and Hero I is still the state of the art. Anyone who builds a robot appreciates what happened. When humans use a personal computer, we enter into the computer’s world. If it can’t do something, or if it crashes, too bad; we have to deal. But a robot enters into our world. If floors are uneven, if legs get in the way, if lighting conditions change, the robot has to deal. Extra computing power doesn’t necessarily help; on the contrary, more sophistication typically means less resilience.

Will these mechanical avatars soon be knocking on your door? The fundamental challenge of telepresence is not technological but psychological: I, for one, would have a lot of trouble keeping a straight face if a robot sat next to me at one of our magazine’s staff meetings. And can you imagine how most senior citizens would react to the wheeled contraptions? Nevertheless, people may eventually accept the technology if the potential benefits are great enough. For example, an elderly person may decide to tolerate the intrusions of a camera-wielding robot if the only safe alternative is living in a nursing home.

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