Robotic dogs

Natalie Jeremijenko

Location: New York, New York | San Diego, California
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Natalie Jeremijenko, who runs a research lab in the art department at the University of California, San Diego, is changing the way we think about technology. In her Feral Robotic Dog project, she works with teams of high-school students to take apart toy robots and rebuild their physiques and behavior. Armed with pollution sensors, a lowered center of gravity, and all-terrain wheels, the Feral Robotic Dogs head out across the landscape in search of toxins. Released into landfills and urban areas from Arizona to Ireland, the dogs are programmed to seek out some of the same pollutants used in their own manufacture, drawing attention to the toxic nature of high-tech industry. Whereas most consumer robots are designed to dance, yap, or vacuum the rug, the Feral Robotic Dogs are equipped with a social agenda.

Why reverse-engineer a commercial toy? Jeremijenko’s “open-source” tactics aim to exploit the distribution power of the corporate toymakers, whose economy of scale makes these digital dogs an inexpensive way to get a sophisticated robotics platform into the hands of kids. Her project also helps kids recognize the consequences of consumer choices and imagine toys and technologies with a different purpose. As she explains, “Robotic toys embody a particular view of learning and entertainment. Are we equipping our children to address the technological future, or are we simply training them to push buttons in predetermined, pre-scripted interactions?”

Jerejimenko’s map of the San Francisco Bay Area shows that one of the nation’s most prosperous regions, and one which has set the bar worldwide for high-tech innovation, is also host to more Superfund sites—the nation’s worst toxic waste sites—than any comparable geographic area in the United States, with serious consequences for public health. The Feral Robotic Dog project prepares its young participants to address one of the central challenges of our time: finding ways that technology can enrich human life without destroying the systems that sustain it.