Robots with a nose for trouble


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May 24, 2005
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Young hackers are rewiring old toys and turning them into the sniffer dogs of the future
This summer, eagle-eyed Dubliners might have spotted a gang of feral dogs sniffing their way through the streets of the Irish capital. The pack, which is now on its way to London, crawled at ankle height on a mission to sniff out dangerous pollutants. But these dogs are not trained bloodhounds: in fact, they are not even flesh and blood.

The robotic canines were constructed by Irish teenagers under the eye of their inventor, Natalie Jeremijenko. They began life as toy robots with names such as Tekno, I-Cybie and Megabyte 1 and 2, but were moved into the workshops of Jeremijenko, an Australian who is now a professor at University of California, San Diego.

Under her guidance, children dismantle and rebuild these toys to function far beyond their makers' intent. The dogs' centre of gravity is lowered and wheels are attached for easier manoeuvring. Pollution sensors are added, as is circuitry that allows them to act autonomously.

For Jeremijenko, it's an opportunity to get people thinking about what makes technology and how it relates to the wider world. Robotic dogs are the expression of 50 years of artificial intelligence research and technology manufacturing - a dirty industry.

Jeremijenko and the children let the robot dogs out into the wild, near sites suspected of being polluted, and their sensors draw them to the very same chemicals created by the process of manufacturing hi-tech toys.
"These dogs are kind of sniffing their own bums," she explains.

Dublin-based children's museum ARK sponsored and hosted the recent exercise, as children between the ages of eight and 14 created feral robotic dogs and released them around Dublin to highlight the environmental problems that the Irish technology boom has brought to the country.

Other groups of robotic dog creators have sprung up around the US and Europe. London has one, and next month, Jeremijenko will run a workshop for local residents and users of Hackney's London Fields.

Quinn Norton
Thursday October 20, 2005
The Guardian

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