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
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
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
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
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.