ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Don't tell Mark Tilden that robots need computer brains. His robots don't use them.
Tilden has created an army of lifelike robotic bugs that use transistors, rather than computers, to control their actions. The result of his work is a hot new toy line from Hasbro's WowWee Toys called B.I.O.-Bugs.
"It's not binary like a computer," said Tilden, a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist. "I basically used a dozen transistors to build a walking bug. You can change strategies by changing transistors or circuits.
"For example, you can wire up transistors to make the bug scared of light, scared of other robots. You can make a chicken robot that's scared of everything. And by combining all these simple elegant routines, you end up with large-scale, complex organized behavior. You don't think an ant has a computer-brain?"
The B.I.O. (for Bio-mechanical Integrated Organisms) critters, based on a science called biomorphic robotics, actually learn and alter their behavior as they interact with the environment. They have four unusual features: They're trainable; they become more efficient the longer they operate; they're animated and can interact with a child; and they can be rebuilt with new behaviors very simply if a child becomes bored with them, Tilden said.
"I was trying to think about what I wanted when I was a precocious 7-year-old," Tilden said. "I wanted to take a bug apart and find out how it worked. Rather than kits where you put things together, these are working creatures designed so you can open them up and mess with their heads. This is the kind of thing young kids want to do, but they can't open up their dogs or cats or goldfish."
Tilden, 40, is a consultant with both Hasbro and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Toy stores are excited about the sales potential of the bugs and hope, despite the recession, they will be a big seller this Christmas.
"We at KB Toys feel that B.I.O. mechanical bugs from WowWee Toys will be one of the hottest toys for 2001, as it is one of the most unique combinations of science and toys that has ever been put together," said C.B. Alberts, vice president of KB Toys.
"B.I.O. mechanical bugs are the quintessential toy of 2001," said Christopher Byrne, an expert who goes by the handle "The Toy Guy." "They combine the fascination that kids have with living things in the world around them with advanced robotics to create a sophisticated level of play that is rich with imaginative possibilities."
Tilden has been creating, tinkering and playing with the buglike robots for the past 10 years. About two years ago, when the media got wind of his work, he made several appearances on television and cable networks, such as the Discovery Channel. It was through that exposure that Hasbro learned about the bugs, and early last year they agreed to work together on the B.I.O.-Bug models.
"A few months ago, when the first ones started coming out, I took about 40 of them ... and let them interact with each other," Tilden said. "Have you ever seen the movie 'Them'? It was just like that. Although I wouldn't worry about these bugs trying to take over the world."