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Remember the Furby, that moving, talking, hairy ball that kids coveted for Christmas in 1998? Now one of its cocreators has unleashed the Pleo, a more evolved follow-on in the shape of a baby dinosaur that reacts to stimuli with far greater flexibility but comes at a heftier price: US $199. Is it an astounding kid’s toy or just another gadget for the adult who has everything?

Pleo currently has no cameras, so it can’t see, and no voice-recognition software, so it can’t come when called. But about 40 sensors under its rubbery skin do clue it in on changes in light, sound, and motion, and its proprietary operating system and ARM7 low-power, 32-bit RISC microprocessor core are programmed to make it respond to changes in its environment—and in itself. For instance, a so-called lactic acid program causes Pleo to lie down and rest after a period of battery-draining activity. To get new behaviors, users can write their own programs or download them from the Web, then put them on the machine’s removable secure digital (SD) flash memory cards.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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