Aibo the robot dog can shake your hand. Aibo the robot dog can play dead. Aibo the robot dog knows its name, can fetch, wag its tail, chirp happily when you pet it, and execute plenty of other doglike tasks that a robot can be programmed to perform.
That’s amusing. But Sony, Aibo’s manufacturer, programmed its creation to do so much more. Like a real dog, Aibo can sense and navigate its surroundings. Aibo reads vocal cues to know when you are pleased or displeased. Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) powered by data and Micron memory, Aibo actually learns from interactions and modifies its behavior over time, developing a different personality from all of the other Aibos in the world.
Aibo — which means companion in Japanese — strives to know you, to lighten your mood, to be a buddy. In other words, Aibo strives to be a real pet. Considering Aibo has developed a devoted owner group in Japan and a growing set of enthusiasts in the U.S., perhaps Aibo is succeeding.
Some owners live alone and enjoy the company Aibo provides, said the creator of Aibo, Sony Senior Vice President in charge of AI Robotics Business, Izumi Kawanishi. But Aibo isn’t just a friend for the lonely. Families, some with kids and other pets, welcome Aibo into their homes.
“People love Aibo’s styling, [it] has a cute, cute design. That is always the first impression,” Kawanishi said. “But they become [more] interested because Aibo is a robot, and he is a robot that is growing up. That becomes very fun and interesting. That is why people love Aibo.”
Building a “good boy”
Real dogs are not static. Owners wouldn’t love a dog robot incapable of doing at least a decent facsimile of dog movement. To that end, Aibo moves on 22 axes, enabling him (or her, your choice!) to nuzzle your hand when you pet its sensor-equipped head and back, or roll over and get back up, or approach and lay down on its charger pad, or stretch after waking up.
Nobody will confuse Aibo for a real dog. However, for one owner interviewed by CNET — who owns 28 Aibos, dating back to the first version released in 1999 — the Aibo’s movements are convincing.
“His expressions, his fluidity of motion, his ability to basically convince me that he loves me allows me to love him in return,” he said.
Aibo has a camera in its mouth that can take pictures, as well as a camera above its tail that senses the environment, enabling the dog to navigate around objects. Over time, Aibo better learns the dimensions of its home and becomes more sophisticated in traversing the space.
Aibo’s eyes are screens that flash, narrow and otherwise give Aibo realistic expression. The AI that enables Aibo’s “personal growth” is powered by a 64-bit quad-core CPU and 4GBs of Micron low-power DDR4 memory. AI relies on a constant stream of data from sensors and stored past experiences to inform reactions and make decisions. Memory is what stores and moves the data both within Aibo and in the cloud. All of Aibo’s data — for navigating, adapting to voices and commands, learning owner preferences, taking photos through its mouth camera, and everything else — is moved to the cloud via 4G LTE and Wi-Fi transmission. The advent and incorporation of 5G networking capabilities will further expand Aibo’s skills and personality, Kawanishi said.
Aibo is real (enough)
YouTube is full of humans being absolutely delighted by Aibo. It doesn’t take an expert to see that interaction is the reason. Aibo lives to elicit responses from people. Whether it’s by showing affection when receiving pats and scratches, retrieving its special bone on command, softly yipping when humans show excitement or doing the many things Aibo can do, the robot seeks to create a two-way relationship.
That relationship is real, said James Young, founder of the Human Interaction Lab and an associate professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada.
“Robots like Aibo do form a connection with people, but it’s a little difficult to know exactly why that is …” Young told CNET. “As soon as you are collocating with this robot, you are sharing your space, it seems to have this extra power over you in terms of getting reactions out of you.”
Children are especially charmed by Aibo. At least some real dogs are uncertain upon meeting their robot peer, though reports suggest dogs acclimate to Aibo once they live together.
But humans aren’t dogs. We appear to be hardwired to give lifelike robots the benefit of the doubt, Young said.
“When it moves, a very low part of your brain kicks in and says, ’It’s alive. It’s living,’” Young said. “When (Aibo) uses emotion, a very early stage of processing kicks in in our brain and recognizes emotion, perhaps before a higher level of cognition kicks in that tells you, ‘It’s just a robot.’”
Therapeutic benefits beyond “cute”
Therein lies Aibo’s potential.
Animals make us happy. All kinds of animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits and horses, have a proven track record as therapeutic aides in all sorts of situations. According to the Mayo Clinic, animal therapy can reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue for patients receiving treatment for myriad conditions, including cancer, post-traumatic stress and dementia. Animals have even helped children remain calm while undergoing scary dental procedures.
Animal therapy isn’t quackery. Animals make humans feel better. If humans respond to Aibo, perhaps Aibo can make us feel better, too.
Aibo is not a medical device, and Sony is not marketing Aibo as a panacea. However, Kawanishi said Aibo is already informally being used in hospitals and assisted living centers, and at the minimum, it’s helping to brighten patients’ days.
“Some doctors are trying to use Aibo in hospitals, especially with small children,” he said. “Patients can’t keep a living dog in the hospital. But Aibo is a robot, and he can bring a good feeling.”
Therapeutic uses might be the tip of Aibo’s potential. How many millions of people live in apartments too small for a real dog? How many people love dogs but can’t own them due to allergies? How many elderly people are isolated and lonely? In a world of nearly eight billion people, how many of us, feeling more alone than ever, could simply use a friend?