Photos courtesy of Bandai

After the rush of robotic dogs and cats on the market, aimed at capitalizing on the success of Sony's Aibo, comes a new creation - the mechanical insect. It may seem strange - after all, Japan has more than its fair share of creepy crawlies, why should we need more? - but the WonderBorg, developed by Bandai, represents a potentially big leap (or at least a scuttle) forward in the field of affordable artificial intelligence.

"We've been working on making a robot that acts more independently," said project leader Masashi Harada of Bandai, "and WonderBorg is as far as anyone can take it right now. If any of its sensors react to an external stimulus, it can act on its own judgement."

While the machine has six legs and two antennae, the resemblance to an insect ends with its size (bigger than the palm of one hand) and the eight forms of sensory feedback it contains - touch, floor, infrared, brightness, pheromone, internal clock, step and on/off. Once purchased, the user doesn't need to be familiar with programming languages; it's activated by "block programming," downloaded from Bandai's WonderSwan handheld game-consoles. WonderBorg was released on the Internet on July 23 (JY12,000), and it only took eight hours for the limited number of 1000 units to sell out. Bandai will begin selling WonderBorg again at selected computer and game shops from November.


Bandai's next project, BN1, which may be released in March 2001, has a slightly more conventional appearance, being a cat-like robot containing eight outward sensors and five different motors. Its "gesture sensor" will enable it to recognize its owner's hand movements, and even more potentially scary, something called a "light-pheromone signal" will enable it to communicate with WonderBorgs.

"I believe this will appeal to all of those people who remember the Osaka World Expo of 1970 and who dreamed of having their own personal robot," Harada explains. "Also, if you've got two or three of them together, they can communicate with each other. They emit high electronic tones and can formulate their own language. It's just like that '70s sci-fi movie, Silent Running, if anyone remembers that."

A family album

A family album

The prospect of a robotic bug is not exactly a strange one, on reflection. The concept of Pokemon was of insect-like creatures that could travel electronically from one hand-held game cartridge to another - and we all know what happened to that. This concept was in turn borrowed from the long-standing national fascination with beetles, fireflies, dragonflies and their place in Japanese myth and history.

In more general terms, it raises a number of questions about the difference between robots and "real" insects. Take, for example, the cockroach - it's easy to think of it as nothing more than an organic machine, running on its own program to feed, procreate and survive.

Philosophers have wondered for millennia whether it's possible for animals and insects to have "souls." We may ask the same question, in the future, about WonderBorg.

James Walker

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