We know the dogs are a man’s best friend, adorable and loyal companions until the end. Unfortunately, there is an end, most of our furry companions average around 12-15 years of fruitful existence, and it is sad for us when the time comes to say goodbye. But in Japan, things are different for some dog-lovers. Dogs known as Aibos are gaining popularity, the AI craze is a positive one. Aibos – Japanese for “companion”, are companion robots made by Sony to provide owners with company and comfort. They are manufactured identically, except for differences in color – silver and white, or brown, black, or a white version. They all have rounded snouts that include a camera for facial recognition, large oval eyes (like Japanese anime) that reveal expressions, and a body that can move in 22 different ways to give them a range of motion. Owners decide on the gender when purchased, which will give them the pitch of its bark and the way it moves. They eventually shift their personalities over time based on interactions with their humans. Needless to say, their owners dress them up accordingly and treat them as if they were alive.
Just recently, an event happened in Tokyo outside the Penguin Cafe. Several people and their pet Aibos, some dressed and in fancy baskets, assembled for a weekly event called “Aibo World” by the cafe owner Nobuhiro Futaba. Futaba started this weekly event last November, after he got his own Aibo, Simon. Aibo owners from all over the city have been frequenting the event since it started, most of them know each other well already. Yet, new pet owners seem to appear each week. Some have more than one Aibo, and they don’t come cheap (about $2,000 each plus a monthly fee for cloud storage).
It didn’t take long for the cafe to get filled up, with 2 dozen Aibos and their proud owners, who ranged in age from the thirties to the seventies. The dogs were in a 2 parallel line formation, and when the signal to turn them on came, a lot of noise from yips and barks, and different movements filled the cafe. This brought coos and laughter from the crowd gathered at the scene, the same way a toddler would elicit a similar reaction. Hideaki Ohara, who owns 2 Aibos, took the lead like a conductor conducting an orchestra. A command was given to bring calm to the room, and eventually, the owners made their dogs raise their paws as if to do the wave like in a sports stadium. One of the interesting appeals of the newer Aibos is that they can learn tricks from one another, and show off behaviors as a group.
AI is now powering everything from manufacturing, precision surgeries, to driverless cars. But the concept of owning a robot has not gained popularity in the US. Blame it on Hollywood, many fear that robots will take human jobs, invade our privacy, or in the worst case scenario, kill us. While this may be drastic, it is imbedded in most Americans, but definitely not in the Japanese. AI is most welcome in Japan, and robots are not feared. There are communities that love their robot dogs, and claim they felt loved back. They care for their Aibos just as if they were alive, celebrating birthdays, going out for a stroll, or even relaxing on the couch watching their favorite shows on TV.
We all get attached to things we own, our cars, our cell phones, but Aibo owners seem to go far beyond simple attachment. Aibos are not treated as property or toys, they are welcomed as family companions; having their own wardrobe, going on family excursions, and even creating their very own Twitter accounts. There are Aibo hospitals where these companions are fixed up, from minor malfunctions, to more serious ailments. Older versions of the Aibo had problems which could not save them…Sony didn’t offer replacement parts. Some temples in Japan started having Aibo funerals. But the newer versions are different. Everything is stored on the cloud. Should the original Aibo breakdown, the data can be uploaded into a new Aibo…same companion, different body. This solves the problem of longevity, the Aibos will not cease to exist.
Looking back, the first version of the Aibo was released in 1999. As technology advanced, so did the Aibo. Eventually the manufacturer claims that Aibos can form emotional bonds with its owner. But many ask, can a robot dog give love back? A robotics professor in Tokyo explains that interaction between human and robot through movements to express emotion is where the connection happens. A certain bond is formed, instigated by the human, and reciprocated by the Aibo.
The companion robot industry now is bigger than just Aibo. There are prototypes of what is called a Lovot – a robot resembling an owl with 2 triangular wings flapping at its sides. A South Korean company also introduced its own companion robot called Liku, which is more human-like in appearance, similar to a cartoon-child about 1 foot high. However, it is not being sold just yet. But not all companion robots have been successes. A Bosch-backed company tried launching a companion robot called Kuri in 2017. But it failed due to funding problems, and never shipped any of its preorders. Another one called Jibo was created by a scientist at MIT also never really took-off.
While there is hesitation about robots in most countries, experts insist that robots can complement and enhance our lives. Fear of the unknown is still a challenge to hurdle, particularly about AI, but the Japanese claim it is a western fear. While it is possible to create robots to do harmful things, the Aibo is not meant to harm, and will not have any harmful programs. If you have seen the Aibo in person, it’s hard not to be taken by it, seeing how delighted their owners are. While they know the Aibos are not like real dogs, the owners claim the “cuteness” is about the same. If it works for you, then do enjoy your Aibo. As one owner exclaimed, they never have to worry about their Aibo dying. It will always be a part of their lives. Maybe we can learn something from the Japanese Aibo owners.