The robotic killers that could take over Blue Peter

Steve Dinneen
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Animals aren’t high-tech enough. They don’t have screens. You can’t easily upgrade them. Last night I spent six hours trying to control a fox with my iPhone, with limited success. Don’t take my word for it – ask the makers of Blue Peter. They have decided not to relocate the show’s famous menagerie in the wake of its move to MediaCity in Salford.

Blue Peter is trying to get hip, you see, and children are no longer interested in things with a pulse. Unless you can download it from the Apple Store, it’s off the menu.

“It’s really crucial for us to tap in more to children's current passions, what they are talking about in the playground now... Cats don't do what they are told, they are not biddable, they zoom off,” said programme editor Tim Levell, strangling at birth the possibility of another generation of viewers bonding over the image of a presenter falling face-first in elephant excrement.

Of course, the current crop of celebrity animals will be euthanised humanely. Barney the dog will be taken out the back of the new complex in a scene reminiscent of Disney classic Old Yeller, with the echoing gunshot used as a prop to educate younger viewers about the sadder elements of the cycle of life.

Parents will nod sagely and say “That’s what happened to your grandma, son.” Except, hopefully, without the shotgun.

Shelley the tortoise will be treated to a more exciting finale, with former presenter Richard Bacon returning for a one-off special to fling her from the highest window like an aged green frisbee.

Socks and Cookie will join Anthea Turner and her three dozen other cats, wishing they had suffered the same fate as Barney.

Thankfully, Blue Peter will have little trouble replacing them; synthetic animals have come on leaps and bounds (literally, in some cases) since Sony created robo-dog Aibo.

The mechanical canine had a limited repertoire: he could navigate his way around a house using his dead robotic eyes, and respond to basic commands, one of which he seemed to interpret as “do the splits”. (In many ways Aibo represented the two sides of Sony – at once innovative and unfocused. While the Japanese firm was developing artificial dogs, Samsung was encroaching on its bread-and-butter flat-screen television market. Aibo was retired in 2006. Samsung is still there.)

The University of Tokyo this month unveiled Pigorass, a four legged creature whose movement style resembles a cross between a rabbit and a dirty movie. Its complex design closely mimics the mammalian musculoskeletal system, with the eventual aim being to create better coordinated robots.

The Sheffield Centre for Robotics recently showcased ShrewBot, a machine whose sensitive artificial whiskers can ascertain complex details about its environment (how thick a sheet of ice is, for example). Scientists are now training it to hunt, which seems like a singularly bad idea for a machine with extra-human perception, especially one that looks like a terrifying marital aid.

Stanford has made another robot that can walk on the ceiling. Between these three robots, you have all the ingredients to create a cold, ruthless killing machine. It’s a small step to the grotesque animal soldiers imagined by Grant Morrison in his dystopian graphic novel We3; cats, dogs and rabbits clad in high-tech suits of armour, designed to fight wars in place of humans.

Perhaps Blue Peter could employ these creatures to roam the studio, firing grenades at its presenters and setting fire to cameramen.

Maybe that would be exciting enough for young viewers. But probably not.