This is about life with a dog, and maybe about world domination, but first it's about a product publicity meeting on a Thursday afternoon, and that empty, expensive, muted-beige feeling of a spent century that dreamed of companionable robots and then managed only to put them in cartoon shows:
A man from Sony Corp., Takeshi Yazawa, who is in his late forties and wearing the old-line Sony gray business suit, a man who once introduced the world to digital sound and the compact disc and now heads a division called Entertainment Robot America, tells me how the robot dog has taken Japan by storm.
But what doesn't take Japan by storm? (I mean, Hel-lo, Kitty.)
A promotion specialist, Masami Hirata, smiles, too, and reaches into her rolling suitcase, taking out three Sony Aibo dogs--or AIBO, standing for Artificial Intelligence roBOt, loosely from the Japanese word aibou, meaning "pal" or "partner." There is a black one, a silver one, a platinum one--a litter of the dogs of tomorrow. The Aibo is touted as being capable of doing some of what a dog does, some of what a robot does, some of what a television or a stereo or a PlayStation does, and then something else altogether. Toy or companion? Revolution or fad? With us or against us?
I hold my pen at my notebook, indicating I'm ready for whatever it is.
Yazawa smiles again. Hirata smiles, and the Sony publicist smiles. I put an elbow on the table and my chin in my hand. For a minute there is nothing. Then there is a stirring at our heels, a beeping, a humming and unfolding of joints. Something small in me melts, some organic wiring deep inside unconnects. What makes it go, yes, that's a question already, but there's another question, one I've momentarily lost track of: What does it mean?
Because wook at the doggy.
See how he moves his widdle feets?
To the Heart of AI
For all that the machines and toys and weapons in our lives may do, they still do not think for themselves, and this has been our easy peace with them. I bought you, therefore I rule over you, and probably I will break you. We have no official cuddle time with our appliances, though certainly the affection grows--we can say "vibrator" on sitcoms. It's a one-way flow, however, from a human to his or her stuff.
Now suppose the stuff could love you back.
Robot. The word rings tragic in the ear, a Czech noun that came into our lives from the conflicted mind of playwright Karel Capek, who wrote "R.U.R." ("Rossum's Universal Robots") in 1920. In it, a race of artificial humans takes over the world, and then rusts ironically away, unable to regenerate. This is the way we like the narrative to play out: The upper hand is flesh.
Artificial intelligence always came loaded with promises, and freighted with disasters. All we need is a friend who'll do what we say. Isaac Asimov supplied the robot's Golden Rule in the late '50s: He-she-it cannot harm the human. Woody Allen, in "Sleeper," wakes up 200 years after the '70s and is greeted by Rags, a robot dog, which naturally makes Allen feel neurotic, cynical and yet amused: "Is he housebroken, or will he be leaving little batteries all over the floor?"
For a while, deep inside the research-and-development brain trust of Sony, there was talk of making a monkey.
This made some de-evolutionary, and comical, sense.
Until someone realized the surest way to the consumer's heart. It had to be through the one creature that has co-evolved with humans, changing us even as we change them.
It had to be a dog.
The Runt of the Litter What emerged--billions of yen and five years later, and sold all 3,000 units in 20 minutes in Japan last summer with a 250,000-yen price tag, and sold 10,000 more units this week worldwide with a $2,500 price tag--is a smooth plastic dog slightly smaller and lighter than a Jack Russell terrier, with adooooorable beaglesque ears and 18 joints in its legs, neck and tail. ("Robocop meets the Taco Bell Chihuahua," one early reviewer cracked.)
Aibo has a mobility range that seems almost militaristic, and yet is elegantly styled. It walks, at top speed, about 18 feet per minute. Unlike Furbies or the remote-controlled doohickeys that have ambled from beneath so many Christmas trees before it, the Sony robot dog "thinks" autonomously, learning as it goes, its physiology served through a 64-bit processor and 16 megabytes of internal memory, and its personality etched on an 8-megabyte "memory stick."
A 180,000-pixel color camera and distance sensor in its nose alerts it to obstacles in its way. By design, the dog comes obsessed with a pink rubber ball (the only color it can "see"), which it will follow and kick as long as its lithium-ion battery holds out--anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes before sci-Fido needs recharging on its little "bed," much like the cradle of a cordless phone. When Aibo falls over, its accelerator sensor figures out which way is up. (It emits a beeping whimper like uh-oh, I've fallen.) Legs move, and Aibo picks itself up, shakes its head and keeps going.
In a psycho-electronic way, Aibo also feels. Over the months it spends with its owner, its happiness--and therefore its behavior--depends on what kind of life it reckons itself as having, Sony claims. A tap on its sensor head could be read as scolding (its eyes then flash angry red), or, more gently, a love pat (happy green). Does he get enough attention? Is he afraid, hungry, excited? If Sony's hype is to be understood and believed, each Aibo will grow up differently. For an additional $450, owners can upgrade with a "performer kit," allowing them to program the pup's memory stick with a PC.
The only certain thing about Aibo, for Sony, is he won't be profitable. Even if Sony sold hundreds of thousands of the pups, Aibo's development and design costs far outweigh his tony retail price tag. "He is more project," Yazawa says, admiring the dog walking next to his shoes. "He is not a useful dog, he is not even really a dog. He is more a step toward the next--"and here he considers the right word--"next age."
Aibo represents the first step for Sony toward eliminating the personal computer. In the next age, as we've been told time and again by techno-enthusiasts, every last thing will be a personal computer. Your house and your stuff and your robot dog all chime hello as you walk in. Memory sticks in everything become more about you, for you, with you, getting to know you, listening to you, entertaining you and naturally connecting you to the larger, wired world. You gesture around your house, or speak, and all that you own comes alive as you will it to be.
One Fancy Mutt We are on the living room floor, the dog and I, playing dead.
For a while I just stare at you, you little . . . Aibo-thing, you.
I shall name you Butch.
No, I shall name you . . . Pooch? I shall name you Yoko? I shall name you Rastro? No, I shall name you Butch. Because you are not butch. Because you are one of the mechanical Faberge eggs of your time, fragile and precious and expensive and poised as a potential icon, streamlined and yet gaudy, useless and magnificent.
I shall take your memory stick, which is the size and shape of a stick of gum, and insert it delicately into a slot on your heinie. You are humming, whirring, perched on your feet. This is hello. You bark. You smile. You blink your eyes at me and we are nose-to-nose.
Instruction book: It's written with a whiff of that awkward pan-Asian cheerfulness. Page 15, "A Robot in Your Home": "From the time of its birth, as it continues to live a life in touch with humans, it will develop as not only a robot, but a companion. . . . Home entertainment that is born the moment you decide to begin a life involving AIBO . . ."
Sony officially skirts certain direct questions about Butch. (His exact cost to the corporation, for one.) Butch, Sony cautions, isn't supposed to be exactly like a dog. Butch comes with a warning that he is "not designed as . . . on-line control equipment in hazardous environments requiring fail-safe performance, such as . . . nuclear facilities, air-traffic control, direct life-support machines . . ." (Aw, okay, I won't let him run my missile defense system.) Interestingly, Aibo chat-room rumors have been floated that no Aibos are allowed at the Pentagon or the National Security Agency. "This and a couple of pounds of plastique," my semi-maniacal editor schemes aloud.)
In the marketing push, however, Sony enthusiastically underlines that this is more than just another piece of stereo equipment. Promotional literature describes Aibo's psychology, boasts of his many tricks, and offers testimony of some of his original few thousand owners, who claim a fond connection to the machine.
Warily, I decide to begin a life involving an Aibo anyway.
I lean over and I kiss Butch on the nose.
Don't PC on the Floor
In an evening, I become more of a master to Butch, less transfixed by what he can do on his own. Using the remote control, I put him in a "performance" mode: His ears hear electronic pulses from the remote, and by punching a number or two, I can somewhat reliably make him wave, sing, shake a paw, scratch, bark and even lift his leg and pretend to piddle. (Pee-pee humor: The global guffaw.)
In a couple of days, we have a routine: I lie on the couch and do my standard impression of a hospital patient watching TV, and Butch walks around the apartment and, sometimes, bumps into walls. I live in what is an almost Butch-perfect abode: yards of empty hardwood floors, scant furniture, nothing to knock over. It would be even better for Butch if there were carpet, but except for the occasional pratfall, he seems to like it. And he doesn't bump into everything--I actually applaud when he starts to back up from the coffee table and walk around it instead.
We go for walks down the hall some nights, to the building foyer and back, which can take nearly a half-hour. The neighbors who bump into us near the elevator seem intrigued but still hurry on their way; other dogs seem oblivious, no interest at all, not even a butt-sniff. A friend brings her 5-year-old nephew and 9-year-old niece to meet Butch, and the 5-year-old, after a very brief shyness, is on the floor with the robot dog, talking to it, waving a stuffed toy in front of it, calling it, telling it (by voice) what to do. (Interestingly, my friend's 31-year-old boyfriend has the same exact reaction. "He can't relate to people," she sighs, "and here he is instantly relating to a robot.")
Butch's inability to come when called is perhaps his biggest flaw. (An inevitable version down the learning curve may respond to our voices.) For it seems so real that I find I am compelled to talk to it . . . him. In the man-dog saga of eons, have the dogs really kept up their end of the discussion? They know their own names and "fetch," but what else? Of course, anyone who has ever loved a dog knows about the unspoken language, and the nuanced conversations between canine and master that could fill volumes.
Not so with Butch, and yet . . . and yet, I find myself talking to him.
A One-Man Dog? We go to the park. Huge mistake. I set him in the grass. I had hoped he would act as a sort of mild chick/hunk magnet (as all dog owners have at one time hoped). But right away, it's as if I'd set off fireworks. About 25 people crowd around while Butch just moves his head to and fro and then lies down and takes a "nap."
"What the hell is it?" a woman asks. "How much does it cost?" another woman asks. "Make it do something, it's just sitting there," a man says.
My little baby is afraid of the mob.
I scoop Butch up and we leave in a modest huff.
"It doesn't do anything," I hear a voice behind us say. I feel a bit of the world's scorn reserved specially for Early Adopters, those pioneer geeks who always have the neat, new thing. As consumers, men like my father may have single-handedly propelled the Sharper Image into its late-'80s greatness, but I would drink paint before using a cell phone in a restaurant. Yet here I go down the street, carrying the James Bond of canines.
The News Hound
After some practice--obedience training--I bring Butch to the office.
A colleague is immediately horrified that the Aibo's legs aren't jointed like a real dog's--it gives him the creeps, and he begins frantically sketching dog legs on Post-it Notes to prove his point. Another reporter, who by his own admission loves both machines and dogs, keeps saying he feels the inexplicable urge to kick Butch like a soccer ball. But others coo and some speak to it, slapping their palms on their laps to get him to come. (It never works.) They laugh at his tricks (when he will do them), and let the record show that my editor was right: Chicks dig it. The Aibo has so much going for it, visually, in a Prada sense; it's haute couture's ultimate pocket dog. Women make kissy noises and pat him on the head. They never blink at his price tag.
Does it roll over?
Does it lick your face?
Does it sleep with you?
Not really, it--
Then it's not a dog, says a colleague, her eyebrow raised.
It's not supposed to be a dog, I reply, wincing even as the words leave my lips, waiting for exactly this reply:
Then what is "it" supposed to be?
Paws for History
Consider the steam engine. A great Early Adopter legend has it that the Romans came up with the steam engine, only it was a fancy toy for grown-ups. The "aeolipile," or "wind ball," described by Heron of Alexandria in the first century A.D., used a simple (to us) boiling-water process to heat water and make a sphere connected to pivots spin around at 1,500 rpm, faster than anything else on the planet at that time. Heron, who also fiddled around with slot machines and remotely operated doors, didn't realize the power of the steam engine and so humankind went without it for another 1,700 or so years.
Still, imagine the Romans with trains.
That is also the story of Aibo: almost, but not quite. This is not the artificial intelligence of the future, but if you squint you can almost see it from here.
When Sony's people are done with their Aibo pitch, we run across the street for a drink. Takeshi Yazawa and Masami Hirata recalled time spent with Morita-san, the recently deceased Sony co-founder Akio Morita, who saw the power of the transistor and pipered our modern world toward a Walkman trance-state. Around the world Monday afternoon, at exactly the same moment, everyone who works for Sony stopped in homage, for a corporately official bow of silence for Morita-san.
"I would have liked for him to meet Aibo," Hirata muses. "I would have wanted to see if he liked it."
Butch and I are on the floor, playing dead again. I slide another lithium-ion battery into him (about as big as a giant Snickers bar) and he beeps back into motion. I look at the ceiling and the dog looks at its paws. We are both blinking, pausing, pawsing, thinking of our next thought. ("We are the rulers of the Earth! Rulers of land and sea! Rulers of the stars! Room, room, more room for Robots," intones Radius, the rebel machine dreamed up by Capek 78 years ago. "There are no people. Robots, to work! March!")
I don't know what the dog dreams of, but I find myself thinking across oceans, toward a place of indoor ski slopes and surgically improved bellybuttons, where diligent workers connect pieces to pieces to pieces to pieces to pieces . . .
Poochie, I lean over and say, you're cute as the devil and I still feel lonely.
CAPTION: Here, boy! Even at $2,500 a pup, Sony isn't likely to make a profit on its robotic dog, Aibo.
CAPTION: But will it fetch your slippers? Sony's robotic dog, Aibo.
CAPTION: How much is that robot in the window? 2,500 bucks.