Who let the robot dogs out?

Electronic pets might seem pointless, but they can be smarter than you think. Sanjida O'Connell meets an artist who's teaching old dogs useful new tricks

Dogs are not just for Christmas yet each year more of them than ever are dumped. But what is one person's cast-off can become, with a little careful surgery, part of a growing pack of freedom-fighting feral dogs. The dogs in question are not discarded Labradors and lurchers, but robot pooches such as Sony Aibos and WowWee Megabytes are turned from their domesticated incarnations into an automaton army under the watchful guidance of Natalie Jeremijenko, an associate professor of visual arts at New York University, who also happens to hold a degree in mechanical engineering.

Jeremijenko's army is in Bristol as part of an art exhibition called Supertoys at the Arnolfini arts centre before being released into the city to do the job for which they've been trained. "I find discarded dogs and upgrade their raison d'être," says Jeremijenko. So far, the dogs have been released into 10 contaminated sites to sniff out toxic waste; in the new year they'll be set loose on a brownfield area in Bristol to work out what nasties are lurking beneath our soil.

The first stage in turning the dogs from toys to toxic-waste finders is to upgrade them. "I ever so gently amputate their limbs," says Jeremijenko. New parts are added, such as wheels, to make the dogs into all-terrain vehicles. Next rhinoplasty is carried out – their noses are stripped back and sensors capable of detecting environmental pollutants are added. The dogs are designed for particular sites: the most common kind of toxin they'll encounter are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene. "As an experiment, lie down on the sidewalk and sniff," says Jeremijenko, "Heavy VOCs are found in the bottom 12 inches of air. It's known as the stroller phenomenon: babies in buggies are inhaling air that's a thousand times more polluted than the air adults breathe." One dog, WowWee's Megabyte II, has been hot-rodded to become a Cyber Watch Dog capable of sniffing out radioactive material.

After their cosmetic implant, the dogs are given brain surgery. "We increase their brain power by adding extra memory, microprocessors and communication devices, which will help them develop pack behaviour," says Jeremijenko. The idea is that once the dogs are released on the site, they'll follow the concentration gradient of chemicals. When they detect that a chemical is at an unsafe level (determined by environmental organisations), they'll react using their own instinctive behaviour that the manufacturers had originally given them, such as rolling over and playing dead or barking the national anthem. "The students exploit the theatrics of the toys mercilessly," says Jeremijenko wryly.

The dogs appear to be in a pack because their behaviour is dictated by the terrain and the amount of toxins present, but they can also co-ordinate with each other. One pack was fitted with whistles and "ears" so they could summon each another when one detected a chemical, as well as returning to their owners when called. "This is complex stuff," says Jeremijenko, "We are inexpensively creating robots like the Mars rover – semi-autonomous platforms capable of collecting data and covering a similar terrain and responding similarly to Nasa's rover." To buy the dogs new would cost £15 to 100 and they can be successfully cannibalised with spare electrical parts for as little as £50.

Yet in spite of their complexity, most of these dogs are upgraded by teenagers. One of Jeremijenko's most successful releases was of a pack of dogs altered by teenagers who all lived in the Bronx and released the dogs into their local Starlight Park. The park is a thin sliver of land that runs alongside the Bronx River and is flanked by a motorway, the Sheridan Express, and boxed in by a main road. There's also a train line running upstate and various pollutants (22 cars have just been fished out of this stretch of river). The site was originally a gas works, the remnants of which were buried 70 years ago beneath the park. An environmental audit might never have got off the ground. Even if it had done, few people would have known and even fewer would have cared. "This 'audit' was carried out by kids who'd never done any programming or environmental sensing before, but were interested in their local park because the contamination has a tremendous impact on them and their families. The value of this project comes from who is doing the interpretation, who is doing the monitoring and who cares," says Jeremijenko, "and when you release a pack of hot-rodded robotic dogs on a contaminated site it becomes newsworthy."

The pack of yapping dogs found serious quantities of chemicals – the discarded gas tanks were leaking chemicals into the soil. The teenagers who released the dogs have now been invited by Con Edison, the company that owns the site, to join public hearings to work out how to decontaminate the park. Once the clean-up has been finished, the park will be reconstructed and will reopen in 2010. "What the dogs can do is provide an evidence-driven way to address environmental issues and structure participation with people who would otherwise be excluded from many decision-making processes," says Jeremijenko.

So, clearly the robotic dogs are seriously good at their job of sniffing out contaminants. As Jeremijenko says, "Even though we don't have the visible smoking stacks of the industrial age, we are currently witnessing the most toxic and environmentally damaging processes that our species has ever created." But Jeremijenko, who was named one of the top 100 young inventors by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has had an exhibition at Tate Britain, is also interested in the dogs themselves and what they mean culturally: "It's a strange phenomenon, these toy dogs. These are the porcelain dolls, the tin soldiers of our generation. Toys normally have something to do with learning – construction toys teach you about construction, Monopoly teaches you about mergers and takeovers – but what are these toys for?" It looks as if one young woman and a few teenagers from the Bronx have found out exactly what a Sony Aibo is good for.



Supertoys is at the Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol until 18 January (0117 917 2300; www.arnolfini.org.uk )

Off the scrapheap: Putting discarded technology to work

Encylopodia

New iPods are released at such a rate that addicts have piles of them stacking up at home. Put them to good use with Encyclopodia, a revolutionary (and free!) new software project that will put the massive encyclopedic resource of Wikipedia in place of the music on your 'Pod. Encyclopodia can be installed on iPods generation one to four, as well as on mini iPods and Photo iPods. The software allows you to download all the information on Wikipedia as an Epodia file, though only in English, German and Italian. http://encyclopodia.sourceforge.net

Modified Toy Orchestra

This unique electronic orchestra gives a new purpose to abandoned children's toys by converting them into musical instruments. The process is called "circuit bending" and has been pioneered by award-winning sound artist Brian Duffy. Duffy scours car-boot sales for unwanted electronic children's toys and takes them apart to find the connections that can reveal new sounds. He then reassembles the toys, adding in a series of switches and dials to control these new sounds and "play" music. Most of the toys used are plastic electronics – Speak & Spell (right), Playskool Saxophone and a Play & Learn toy. There is even an album, Toygopop, produced by music label Warm Circuit, which can be downloaded from iTunes or Bleep.com or bought from warmcircuit.com An entire orchestra of the toys will be conducted in London's Covent Garden tomorrow. www.myspace.com/toyorch



Musical Game Boys

Playing music on old gadgets is about much more than just re-purposing an old piece of equipment – completely new sounds can be made that enhance music lovers' enjoyment and experience of electronica. One craze is for eight-bit music played through retro consoles such as the Game Boy. Remember that satisfying clunk when you completed another block in Tetris or the excitable jingle when Super Mario (left) jumped on a life-giving mushroom? Experimental gaming musicians are turning these sounds into music and examples can be found on micromusic.net, which holds eight-bit festivals attended by thousands of fans. There is a group, Hot Gameboy Music Club, that make music solely using the tones they can get out of a Game Boy, and an artists' collective called 8bitpeoples who are influenced by a range of classic video games. One of the founders, who goes by the name Nullsleep, has remade Depeche Mode classics in Game Boy bleeps and bloops. www.8bitpeoples.com

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
News
news
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Life and Style
Customers look at the new iPhones on display at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iphone 6 plus at the Apple IFC store in Hong Kong
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Beard, Ben Schnetzer, Douglas Booth and Jack Farthing in ‘The Riot Club’
propertyfilmReview: It's the sheer nastiness of the Riot Club that takes you aback, says Geoffrey Macnab

Sport
Twelve of the winning bidders will each host three group matches
football
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Graduate BI Consultant (Business Intelligence) - London

    £24000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Graduate BI Consultant (B...

    Service Delivery Manager (Product Manager, Test and Deployment)

    £40000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager (Product Ma...

    Technical Product Marketing Specialist - London - £70,000

    £50000 - £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Cloud Product and Solutions Marketin...

    Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

    £18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week