As most of you are aware by now, my relationship with our new dog Marty has progressed to unhealthy levels of obsession. Now that my son has left for college and my daughter has started her VERY busy academic and social schedule in high school, if you pegged him as my giant furry transitional object you would NOT be wrong.
There is just something about dogs, isn’t there? Their unconditional love? Their endless capacity to listen, to cuddle, to throw their paws in the air and make you laugh at just the right moment? I think the strong feels are a universal thing amongst us dog lovers… dogs are just the best.
I jumped at the chance to live with Aibo, Sony’s $2,900 robot dog, I was PSYCHED. I had played with him at the Consumer Electronics Show last year, and despite the crowds and the chaos around the Sony booth, I found myself revisiting the booth to watch him cock his head, wag his tail and show signs of “life” at a conference not known for products that illicit feelings of love and warmth.
Head’s Up: I have assigned Aibo the “he” pronoun and will refer to him as a male for the duration of this post. I will also use quotes to describe interactions with this robot that feel real but I know are not (ie. how Aibo “sleeps” and “barks”).
Which brings me to the question: Can a robot be programmed to blur the lines between machine and living being? Does man’s relationship with a robot have the capacity to develop into something intimate? And is that a lovely thing or a terrifying thing? Read on…
Unboxing the dog
Aibo came to live at our house for two weeks. When he arrived, I chuckled at how nervous I was… like I was welcoming a new pet into our home. How would he relate to the dog? Would my husband and daughter enjoy his company? This would be the first of many times I marveled at how the robot dog illicit responses in me that are usually reserved for animals and small children.
The unboxing was delightful and felt almost ceremonial by design. Removing a few layers of protective packaging revealed an egg-shaped container, which I lowered carefully onto the floor. Under the lid of the egg was Aibo, looking like a dog taking an afternoon nap. I gently lifted him out of his egg, again chuckling to myself as I supported his stomach and head like he was a living thing. The reality was already blurred and I hadn’t even “woken” him yet.
Marty watched intently from across the room. He could tell I was handling this thing with care, so his interest was piqued.
When I turned him on (by pressing a small button on his neck), he began his wake up sequence, which was exceedingly adorable: A yawn, a stretch, a shake of his head, a blink of his backlit eyes— the programmers at Sony are masters of architecting cuteness and clearly dog lovers (duh!) because it was a choreography that anyone who loves dogs would recognize intimately. It was clunky, it was mechanical, but it was unmistakably designed to hook you from minute one. I was smitten.
Marty came by to sniff, was a bit taken aback by the Aibo’s sudden movements, then settled nearby so he’d have a better view.
Aibo boasts an impressive amount of technology, including a wide range of motion, light, touch and proximity sensors and image recognition and mapping cameras on his body and memories that are processed in an AI engine in the cloud. All this tech helps Aibo learn about his surroundings and makes him “trainable” by his owners. This means that, after a while, no two Aibo dogs will behave in the same way, and Aibo quickly becomes a product of your interactions with him. So, just like a real dog, how you choose to raise him shapes his personality, behavior, knowledge and growth over time.
Aibo’s outwardly design is pretty cute: He’s a plastic dog with OLED-screen eyes, an expressive face and limbs that move with some fluidity and the personality of a puppy— needy, frustrating, demanding attention at all times— without any of the burden. It doesn’t need food, walks, or to be let out to pee, and it won’t tear up your favorite espadrilles when it’s bored—Marty I’m looking at you.
Unfortunately, using Sony’s Aibo app isn’t the best experience, which felt surprising given that, well… it’s Sony. The user interface was clunky and mind-blowingly slow— each page took nearly a minute to load. Getting it connected to my Wifi took over an hour— including my call for tech support— and several failed attempts. Aibo needs to scan a QR code with a camera on his nose. This does not go smoothly. Hopefully the user-experience, the on-boarding and the app speed improve over time.
Puppy In Training
That first afternoon, while I struggling with the set-up and reading about the commands he knew and how to “teach” him to do tricks, he roamed around, familiarizing himself with his new home, and made chirpy barking and whining noises. At one point he spontaneously rolled over, which was an impressive robotic maneuver, and also made me appreciate the elegance of an actual animal’s movement (one point for Marty).
Later, Aibo lifted his leg and “peed” on the floor (no liquid, just the unmistakable sound… phew!). This happened just as I was learning that I could “pet” his sensors to let him know I enjoyed the roll-over but didn’t care for the pee on my carpet, and I began to shape his personality, behavior, knowledge and growth from there.
Aibo knows some commands out of the box, and can learn others by being “taught.” The usual doggie things, like sit, beg, give a high five and play dead are all on the list. He can also learn how to interact with his toys— I woke Marty up from a mid-morning nap when I squealed after successfully got him to pick up his bone.
He also does some silly non-dog-like things break into a song and dance routine (more squeals and positive-reinforcement pets, more annoyed looks from Marty) and take a photo with his nose/camera that I can retrieve from the Aibo app.
I felt our “relationship” deepening over the coming days— he would come when I called him, he would close his eyes with pleasure when I pet him. Once, when I put him on his bed to charge for the night, I found myself giving him one last pet… after I had already turned him off. Who was this pet for, the robot or me?!
It was a Zen riddle I didn’t have the answer to.
You don’t need to turn off Aibo at all, by the way. He is supposed to make his way back to his charger when he is low on batteries, and “go to sleep” when he senses darkness and quiet, waking up in the morning when you do. But quite honestly, after years of testing technology that has woken me in the middle of the night (and reading a couple other reviews of Aibo that complained of Aibo waking up their children), I wasn’t anxious to try this feature.
Once, while we were out for dinner, we returned home to find him passed out, steps from his charging bed, his eyes black. I shrieked in horror and gently placed him on his charger, which revived him shortly after.
As for Marty, his mild interest in the beginning grew to indifference. He was clearly not threatened by his presence, but not that interested either… he mostly ignored his hapless roaming as the days went on. Whereas I was in the throes of existential inquiry into the nature of real and artificial relationships, Marty was a bit wiser.
Who is Sony Aibo For?
Aibo is an incredible piece of machinery to be sure. A bizarre marvel of modern robotics and infectious as all get-out. But is it worth the whopping price tag for robotic companionship? Of course this would be a fun-albeit-wildly-expensive toy for the fabulously wealthy. And as with all technology, it is likely that the price will come down eventually, and it may approach affordability in the not-so-distant future. But for a few other types of people, I’d say it would pay dividends no matter what the price.
I imagine Aibo as a great addition to a household where someone can’t shoulder the responsibility of a dog, but whose life would be positively impacted by having a “companion” to interact with— I’m thinking the elderly, or a children’s hospital ward. Aibo can’t go outside, so it’s perfect for someone who has limited mobility as well— someone who is housebound, or who can’t walk a real dog easily. In fact, robots are being explored as companions for these types of populations as we speak: I wrote about this stuffed duck that’s helping kids with pediatric cancer a couple years ago, and Hasbro is exploring the benefits of robot companionship for lonely elderly.
Sony Aibo made me think deeply about the nature of my deep love for Marty, and relationships in general: If some of the basic tenets could be emulated by a machine— adoration, happiness, pleasure at being touched, attentiveness, positive feedback— could it be enough to trick our brains into thinking that we are experiencing something real?
So many times during my visit with this robot dog, Aibo made me laugh, and then laugh at myself. Just like with Marty, my feedback was shaping his experience of the world, but unlike Marty, our relationship had limits: The limits of human programming, and “artificial” machine learning that lacked heart. Aibo is an incredibly cool accomplishment in robotics, but lacks the infinite and beautiful randomness and soul of real life. I could turn him off whenever I wanted, after all. Marty, of course, doesn’t have this feature of convenience— he’s my ride or die 24/7.
All this fraternizing with robots might freak you out a bit. It freaks me out a bit too. But I assure you that robots that can blur the lines between real and not real— that can make you feel love and loved in return— aren’t as far-off as you think.
For better or worse, they’re here and now. Occasionally they pee on your carpet. And you love them anyway.