The Great Bug Off

New York's brightest students test today's smartest toy.

by Photo by: John B. Carnett

Dissatisfied with its talents as a quadruped, members of New York City's Stuyvesant High School Robotics Club cross-bred this Bio Bug with a set of Lego Mindstorms, producing a fierce-looking six-legged robot.Photo by: John B. Carnett

_They're semi-intelligent, loud, and hellbent on a path of destruction. Not teenagers, but rather a new creation designed for them: Bio-Integrated Organisms, or Bio Bugs for short. The new toy from Hasbro represents a breakthrough of sorts -- it's only $40, yet it's hardwired with artificial intelligence created at Sandia National Laboratory. The result: These toys can work together to complete tasks.

The toy's inventor, Marc Tilden, encourages kids to crack them open to make improvements. So we gave eight bugs to the Robotics Club at New York City's prestigious Stuyvesant High School, and asked the students to do their best Dr. Frankenstein. Here's what they found, in the words of two club members._

Artificial intelligence is no small feat, so we were excited to start testing. We quickly found the durable toys that are very adept at behavioral-based learning-that is, they react to their surroundings. Put a bug in a certain layout, and it immediately figures out how to maneuver around without bumping into anything. The bugs also communicate via infrared signals, so two or more bugs can work together to complete a given task.

The task is often combat, for it's the one game the bugs are designed to play. Yet instead of letting them fight on their own, you can control their motion with a remote. This seemed to negate the coolness of the bugs' artificial intelligence, especially considering they're better brawlers when you control them yourself.

However, when left to battle on their own, the toys show surprisingly intelligent behavior. Bugs from the same "species" (marked by color) cooperate to overtake one from a different species. So, for example, one bug attacks from the front, another from the back. The slow, jerky motion belies Hasbro's promise of a "fierce robotic battle."

We added two legs to one of the four-legged creatures, improving traction and speed. But the action was still too slow-think sloths in a fistfight.

In short, we were impressed with the internal technology, but frustrated with the execution. We grew bored after only a few weeks -- the fate of most toys, we understand, but disappointing considering the bug's potential. We had much higher hopes.