HIGHTOWER: Techno-Pets

Time for another trip into the Far, Far, Far-Out Frontiers of Free Enterprise.Today, Spaceship Hightower takes you into an alien universe where animals abound ... yet they're really not animals. For example, a dog barks, wags its tail, and even fetches its bone -- yet it's not a dog at all. Instead, its' a computerized creature, a microchip mutt that is riding the latest wave of toy technology: virtual pets.It began in Japan where Sony started the techno-pet boom last year by marketing AIBO, a digital doggie that sells for $2,500 each. Despite the price, Sony sold every AIBO it made. Now we have the descendants of AIBO -- a litter of cheaper chip-critters like Fisher-Price's $99 Robotic Puppy, which the Washington Post describes as "a blue-eyed techno-pet for preschoolers that scratches fleas, walks, begs, and uses voice-recognition technology to listen and respond to its owner's commands." No report as to whether the fleas are included or you have to supply your own.The head of the Toy Manufacturers of America gushes that these interactive "smart" toys are the industry's biggest trend now, and they're "changing what toys are and how children play." Yes, but is this good? What about simple stuffed toy dogs that let children do the barking, fetching, and pretending, letting their imaginations run wild? And if it's a "reality experience" that the kids are supposed to get from these robotic rovers, why not, like, you know, an actual dog?But the surge in cyber-pets is not limited to children. Japan's Takara Company is selling an aquarium full of robot fish called the "Aquaroid" line. There are plastic sunfish-looking creatures swimming about, along with a bobbing jellyfish complete with plastic tentacles, and a crab with snapping plastic pincers. Each one costs about $140.This is Jim Hightower saying ... Hey, live a little -- get a live fish!

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