Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Fido meets Furby this holiday season, as robotic dogs top the list of must-have toys. Sears stores in three cities sold out of Poo-chi early on day-after-Thanksgiving morn. Tekno is the star of a J.C. Penney holiday ad. Christmas shoppers can also take home Wowser, Me and My Shadow, Rocket the Wonder Dog, i-Cybie and, for those who won’t settle for anything less than a Westminster champion, a new, improved, slightly cheaper ($1,500) version of Aibo, the little Sony robot who started it all.

Depending on the brand and the price tag, these “dogs” can have bad habits that are corrected with training, go after a bone, lift their leg, respond to petting, recognize their “pups” and relate to other robodogs. None, as far as I know, greets its fellow by sniffing its butt. Apparently canine verisimilitude only goes so far.

The popularity of robotic dogs is no surprise when one considers that a majority of Americans think machines, as emotionless as Mr. Spock, are more capable of counting human votes than humans are. And we’re talking about mere punch-card readers, which are to Poo-chi what a paramecium is to a Nobel Prize winner. Now if only someone could come up with a machine that could fill political office, our government might actually accomplish something.

Robophilia has also made it to prime time in Battlebots, the metal-to-metal wrestling match that last week climaxed its run on Comedy Central with a showdown between Vlad the Impaler and Voltarc. Alas, judging from the behavior of its seemingly somnambulant live audience, the spectacle of bots in mortal combat is pretty boring for everyone but the relatives of the geeks who build these things. Dispassionate machines may be good enough to decide our presidential elections, but as gladiators, they leave something to be desired. After all, mighty Minion, for all its gears, microchips and flying sparks, can’t have a girlfriend, fight a grudge match or feud with Vince McMahon. Not yet, anyway.

Some believe it is only a matter of time before robots not only replace Russell Crowe in full breastplate, but edge out the rest of us as well.

Last spring, Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, made this argument in Wired in a dystopia manifesto that still echoes in Internet chat rooms. “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” contended that the combination of genetics, nanotechnology and robotic technology was a recipe for human demise.

Perhaps a runaway nano-machine that destroys the ecosphere will put an end to us. Or humans will give up flesh and blood for silicon, becoming subsumed into the superior race of self-replicating robots. Or carbon-based life forms will be tolerated, but, in words Joy borrows from the Unabomber manifesto, they “will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.”

Which brings us to the question: Does the future need dogs? I met an Aibo once and was shocked to find how charming this little, uh, creature was. Relating to it was not all that different from relating to a real dog, whose mind is as opaque to us as the microchips in Aibo’s “head.”

We don’t know what dogs think; we make deductions from their behavior, and, as thousands of dog trainers can attest, we often deduce wrongly. A wagging tail leads us to identical conclusions, whether its driven by muscles or a motor.

In fact, it wasn’t long ago that animal behaviorists regarded dogs as little more than automatons, sentient but unconscious beings whose behavior was dictated by hard-wired instincts. This never stopped us from throwing them birthday parties and sending them to therapists.

Now, a new school of activist scientists has caught up with us and stands ready to grant dogs the ultimate human endowment: rights. Can a dog have a soul? Can a machine? What difference does it make as long as we are willing to endow them with one?

Poo-chi and the rest of his breed are not just toys. They are the Trojan horse smuggling robots into our lives and teaching us to like it. Dogs are ideal models for robot behavior. They protect us, work for us, obey us and offer bottomless devotion: humankind’s best friend. We have been richly rewarded for domesticating them. Except some experts don’t see it that way.

They insist it was the other way around: Dogs domesticated humans, training us to provide them with food and shelter. This theory is plausible to anyone whose dog has commandeered the most comfy spot on the sofa or insists on sleeping in a bed. So if little i-Cybie starts coveting the couch, be afraid. Be very afraid.