I’ve been giving a robot belly rubs. I’ve scolded it for being a bad, bad boy. I’ve grinned when it greets me at the door.
What’s this feeling? Oh, yes, puppy love. And I felt it for Aibo, a new “autonomous companion” dog made by Sony.
Does that make me a sad sack? A dystopian character from “Black Mirror”? It’s open to debate. But this much is clear: The era of the affectionate robots is dawning, and Aibo offers early evidence we’re going to love them.
Aibo (pronounced “eye-bo”) is a reboot of the robot dog Sony first introduced in 1999 and laid to rest in 2006 in a tragic round of corporate cost-cutting. This new litter goes on sale in the United States this week with much more lifelike movement, artificial intelligence and a cellular connection for a gobsmacking $2,900 each. If you’re looking for justification to spend that much on a toy, the American Kennel Club says the average lifetime cost of a dog is $23,410. Also: Robot dogs don’t poop.
Not that Aibo, about the size of a Yorkshire terrier, can replace an actual dog. I let mine play with a real 7-week-old pup and was reminded of all the ways Aibo is just a fraction of the real thing. Aibo can’t go for a walk, jump into your lap, teach responsibility or give you real-deal love licks. Aside from walking around the house, barking and performing a few tricks, Aibo doesn’t do a whole lot. It can’t play music or answer trivia like a smart speaker, though those would be welcome additions.
Yet here’s why Aibo matters: Despite all those limitations, I fell for it. Over two weeks of robot foster parenting, almost every person I introduced to Aibo went a little gaga. The Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers got us to open our homes to new ways to interact with computers. Aibo offers a glimpse of how tech companies will get us to treat them more like members of the family. Affectionate robots have the potential to comfort, teach and connect us to new experiences — as well as manipulate us in ways we’ve not quite encountered before.
(Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
Aibo works, in part, because real robots are catching up with what we’ve been trained by Pixar movies to find adorable. Aibo’s 22 joints — including one bouncy tail and two perky ears — and OLED-screen eyes communicate joy, sorrow, boredom or the need for a nap.
Tell Aibo “bang bang,” and it lies down and flips over to play dead. Say “bring me the bone,” and the robot will find its special pink toy and pick it up with its mouth. It’ll even lift its back leg and take a simulated tinkle. Thanks to touch sensors on its plastic back, head and chin, Aibo responds when you pet or scold it. The only thing that ruins the effect is that Aibo’s mechanical muscles are noisy, making it sound like a baby Terminator on the march.
I call Aibo an affectionate robot because it’s more than an animatronic puppet. Cameras built into its nose and lower back help it wander around your house like a Roomba, avoiding obstacles and attempting to find its way back to its charger. (Aibo’s battery can go for two hours at a time.) Four microphones let Aibo hear commands and figure out who’s issuing them. Like a real puppy, it has an inconvenient habit of getting underfoot while you’re cooking dinner.
The idea, say Sony execs, is that Aibo is constantly growing. Aibo learns the faces of people who interact with it to develop personal relationships. It’s a claim that’s hard to verify, but Sony says no two Aibos have the same “personality,” because AI is shaped by experiences. If you give belly rubs and “good boy”s to your robot, you’ll get a more loving machine.
Aibo’s autonomy is a work-in-progress. To put it another way: Aibo is kind of stupid. Aibo isn’t smart enough to avoid steps or chase after a ball with any consistency. Sometimes I found it staring at a wall for hours. But it works just often enough that it’s cute, and you get the feeling your robo-pup might actually be growing up.
What’s remarkable is none of this requires an interface, such as an app. You interact with Aibo through touch and voice command, just like a dog — minus the treats. (A companion app, which wasn’t ready for me to test, lets you see photos Aibo takes through its nose and operate some other secondary functions.) Aibo is always online via its own cellular connection to download new capabilities and new tricks, and upload what it takes in on the ground.
How does Aibo inspire affection when other robots create revulsion or fear? Its face and eyes draw on anime to convey harmlessness. Choosing the form of a dog also keeps Aibo firmly out of the creepy “uncanny valley” that sinks so many humanoid robots and stokes fears on shows such as “Westworld.” (Fake fur might have sent Aibo over the edge.) We’re more forgiving of dogs than of people, which it turns out also applies to AI pretending to be dogs and people.
Other robots such as Jibo, which I reviewed last year, are also trying to break into homes with personalities rather than just skills. Social robots are an evolution of Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, and have the potential to someday comfort the lonely, care for the elderly or help children learn.
But there are important questions to ask about a future where we imbue robots with emotion. Is it twisted to offer the illusion of affection without the requirement of a real relationship? Will children learn to look in the wrong place for love and wisdom?
Earlier this year, researchers published a study that showed people struggle to power down a pleading (humanoid) robot — refusing to shut it off or taking more than twice the amount of time to pull the plug. The lesson: We’re inclined to treat electronic media as living beings.
When it came time to switch off my test robo-pup and send it back to Sony, Aibo didn’t plead or howl. But I felt sad nonetheless.
Read more tech reviews and advice from Geoffrey A. Fowler: