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Pleo: The New Robotic “Designer Life Form”

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The next big “must-have” toy this year, may be in the form of a one-week old baby Camarasaurus. One of the co-creators of Furby, Caleb Chung, is putting the finishing touches on a new animatronic dinosaur called Pleo.

Eight years ago the Furby doll was all the rage, with sales of over 40 million units. Chung’s Emeryville, California-based start-up, Ugobe (a play on words meaning You Go Become), will be manufacturing Pleo, which is scheduled to hit retail shelves in Q3 2006 just in time for the holidays.

The 49-year-old Chung, dubbed a ‘modern Gepetto’ by Wired magazine, chooses to design toys in isolation at his Boise, Idaho home, away from the rest of his Bay Area staff. He envisions Pleo as more than just another robotic toy. The main objective of Pleo is to create an emotional attachment with its owner. Ugobe reps say that if you play with it long enough, Pleo will learn just like a dog, cat or small child. Pleo moves just like you’d expect a baby dinosaur to move, and not a robot (although who really knows how a baby dinosaur moved?).

If you think that Furby was ‘smart’, you’ll be impressed (or creeped out) when you hear that Pleo will have seven computer brains that control 14 servos and 38 sensors compared to Furby’s two computer brains. This is a quantum leap from the Artificial Intelligence implemented in toys like Furby and Sony’s ill-fated Aibo robot dog. Pleo is the first of a line of “designer life forms” that Chung and Ugobe plan to create that combine the latest in artificial intelligence, robotics, mechanical engineering and toy design. Pleo will have ”neural network” software — a program that behaves in a brain-like way as it processes many pieces of information to determine its actions. Another interesting note: Pleo does not have an on/off switch.

The Lonely PictureAll of this cutting-edge technology packed into a 20-inch, Jurassic dinosaur toy seems a great new line of toys or the start of something pretty disturbing. First it’s robotic dinosaurs, what next? The next logical step in the progression of this technology will probably be humanoid “designer life forms.” The main objective of creating an emotional attachment between owner and robot reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode called “The Lonely.” In this particular episode set in the future, Jack Warden stars as Corry, a criminal from the future, who has been sentenced to solitary confinement for fifty years on a penal asteroid (he has the whole barren asteroid to himself). The captain of a passing freighter, who sympathizes with him, leaves him a box containing a female robot named Alicia (played by Jean Marsh). Warden doesn’t take to her at first, but soon he grows very fond of her, and eventually falls in love with her (they only showed him playing checkers and eating dinner with her, but do the math). After a few months go by, the captain of the freighter returns bearing good news: Warden’s been pardoned and is free to leave. However, weight restrictions do not permit him to take Alicia with him. Warden doesn’t want to leave her, because he feels that she really is a woman. The captain takes out a gun and blows Alicia’s face off, pointing out to Warden that all he’s leaving behind is loneliness. This Twilight Zone episode is an extreme example of the emotional dynamic that can possibly transpire between people and machines. As the level of complexity and sophistication of robots increases, forming emotional attachments to them will become easier. Breaking those attachments will become more difficult because robots will be perceived as being “alive” in some small way.[ADBLOCKHERE]

Think about it. What IS the exit strategy to emotionally detach owners from their Pleos? Taking a page from the Twilight Zone book of solutions, there just may be a market for a 5 kg, Cretaceous Period asteroid to put these pesky little Pleos down realistically… a new, functional, 21st century version of the Pet Rock. It’s just a thought. Pleo will sport SD memory expansion and will set you back a mere $200.

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  • Eric Berlin

    Super cool, Matt, great piece! I can see Pleo being a major seller.

  • Phillip Winn

    There was a reason that Furby was essentially block-shaped. That neck looks ready to snap right off!

  • kurtkilgor

    I already form personal attachments to machines. Usually when someone flips over a car, I feel worse for the car than for the occupant.

  • Matt Largo

    I think that some children, who get Pleo will run into some social problems. With the Pleo, Internet, Playstation, and XBox, who needs really hang out with friends? Everything will be Virtual and A.I.

  • ash

    Of course, a robot’s personality can be backed up and transferred into a new body if and when the original breaks down, making the robot immortal (to all intents and purposes). Companionship with robots would therefore fix the main drawback of companionship with pets and people (namely that they leave or die, forcing us to grieve).

    In other words, Corry could simply have transferred Alicia onto an SD card (what ? you mean they don’t have them in the future ?) and slipped it into his pocket, leaving her deactivated body behind.

  • Matt Largo


    Good point. I think that Corry may have been too busy playing checkers with Alicia and never got intimate enough to find her SD Card.

  • Daron Jones

    Of course you wont be able to break emotional attachments. You’d be crying after you spend 200 buxx on a robotic dinosaur! For that price it should be able to make love to you or do something useful like do your shopping!
    With 7 processors one of them best be an mp3 one so i can stick my headphones in its buttocks and feel happy i didnt use that money for an ipod!!

  • William Cox

    I’m covering Pleo and news relating to Ugobe at my site,

    Ugobe has been pretty silent on the little guy since they first announced him. I think they need to release some more vidoes to keep folks interested.

  • jk

    i agree with william cox

  • Robby

    Yes, it’s a absolut fantastic toy. And now it wons the „Sonderpreis Innovation“ of Internationalen Spielwarenmesse Nürnberg.