Emergent Tech

It's artificial! It's intelligent! It's in my home! And it's gone bonkers!

Discoursing Descartes with my robotic pet

By Alistair Dabbs


Something for the Weekend, Sir? I have awoken to the sounds of electronic growling. Making my way downstairs, I discover teethmarks in the bannister, a pool of oil by the back door and the remains of a torn-open jumbo box of AA longlifes in the kitchen.

That damn robot dog simply has to go.

I locate the chirpy little bastard sitting on the lounge sofa. It looks up at me endearingly, taking a break from chewing through the morning's post, its plastic tongue darting in and out of its aluminium mouth while its multi-geared tail wags like a milk frother.

My cat – a real one – is reclining on the arm of the same sofa, pretending to ignore us both but, I suspect, inwardly chuckling. And here's me thinking he might be a good influence on his electronic house chum.

I got all excited by the prospect of a robotic pet when Sony announced the revival of the aibo, a new version of the iconic toy dog that promises to make up the loss of its initial cap with added cuteness, adaptive behaviour and mapping technology.

Like an idiot, I couldn't wait until next year for Sony to ramp up production, nor did I want to fork out 198,000 yen plus mandatory 2,500 yen monthly cloud subscription, so I bought cheap a knock-off job instead.

And it is crap indeed. Its only saving grace is in providing sarcastic amusement for my cat, who regularly baits it into play only to sneak behind, kick it over and walk away calmly.

My cheapskate approach ensured that my robotic dog is about as dim as you can get. It is not connected to Wi-Fi, nor does it store any data on the cloud. To my mind, these were significant selling points rather than disadvantages, but this also means it has nothing remotely resembling AI. It simply will not learn.

This is not the kind of device which you can train not to shit wingnuts on the carpet, let alone engage in a philosophical debate to persuade it not to explode.

On the other hand, it is unhackable. That is, it's almost certainly possible to take over control of my robo-dog if you stand outside my lounge window and use the associated and equally crappy smartphone app to operate it. But you can't steal any personal data from it because there's none to be had.

Robotic pets, however, appear high in the list of "desirable" smart home devices, despite people also being terrified of them.

Earlier models of the Sony Aibo: enough to stroke terror into the heart of any postman. Photo © Sony

Looking through the ironic results of an Opinium survey commissioned by MoneySuperMarket.com over the summer, I read that 76 per cent of respondents admitted to being "fearful" of the smart homes concept, yet 58 per cent were still prepared to invest in smart home devices if it meant their home insurance premium was cheaper.

Just imagine the conversation with a sales representative.

"I don't trust these Internet of Thingies, pal. They're dangerous when they go wrong. They'll leak data to hackers and the manufacturers will trawl my personal information without approval and sell it to all and sundry."

Yes, sir. And if you buy one now, we'll discount your insurance bill by £2.99.

"Oh go on, then."

I call this the Ryanair Effect. Those planes could be tumbling out of the sky for all we care: as long as our short-haul flights are cheap, we'd keep buying regardless.

Anyone who trusts the safety of their home to insecure, unreasoning autonomous devices probably deserves what they get. Just wait until your broadband connection goes down.

Suddenly there is no means of switching your lights on and you have to resort to candles. Your burglar alarm reboots and decides that you, in fact, are a burglar and refuses to be silenced for the next 48 hours.

Is that your auntie come to visit while you're out? Oh dear, your smart doorbell mistook her for a charity collector and has just launched a salvo of pepper-spray into her face.

Now sprawled on your doorstep, she'd probably welcome your assistance, but you are hindered by the door refusing to open – you are a burglar, after all – leaving you to stomp angrily around the candle-lit hallway in frustration as robo-dog shags your left leg.

Don't get me wrong: I like automatic things. Washing machines are brilliant. So are microwave ovens. But I don't want to have to argue with the bloody things when they spontaneously decide to do things on their own.

In this, I am way out of step with the great drive towards artificial intelligence in the domestic environment. For me, an AI-enabled device should be one that interprets patterns within big data and adjusts its behaviour accordingly. For manufacturers, however, the holy grail of AI is Lister's Talkie Toaster.

This is the type of AI we can come to expect being rolled out across all customer-facing applications in future. Call centres will be using it to decide autonomously whether you are you.

  1. Got a sore throat or caught a cold? It doesn't sound like you.
  2. In a hurry after being put on hold for 20 minutes ("because your call is important to us")? You sound aggressive.
  3. Don't have all the documentation to hand the moment we demand it? You sound evasive.
  4. The results are in: we've decided you are not you.
  5. We have duly triggered your home's burglar alarm, switched off your washing machine and hermetically sealed your doors and windows.
  6. Your robot dog has been reprogrammed to attack at will. Choose your option: A for the throat, B for the nuts.
  7. The 60-second countdown has been triggered on the smart nuke built into your microwave.

Now that's smart thinking. Try to talk your way out of that.

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He is well aware that the label "artificial intelligence" is slapped onto irrelevant technologies with gay abandon without thought or reason, but it makes for a funny story anyway. Besides, Rene Descartes was a drunken fart.

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