Aibo: Fetch Robot, Good Robot

Irresistibly cute, Aibo is more life-like than ever before and is sure to capture the hearts of its owners.

Nearly two decades ago, there was a particular four-legged prototype. It had a particular effect that took our hearts at the dawn of the millennium. Then the prototype became a beloved robotic dog by Sony.  After a leave of absence, it found its way back home.  But, before there was an artificially intelligent dog, there was Sony. Then there was a team. Then finally, there was Aibo.

A New Era

In 1995, a group of Sony executives sat at a conference table waiting for the speech from the newly appointed president of the company, Toshitada Doi. As soon as he arrived, Doi announced the company’s new motto, “Digital Dream Kids,” and the era of Sony’s exploration began.

The “digital dream kids” prototype for Aibo was announced in 1998, and the first consumer model was finally introduced in 1999. Subsequently, a new model was released every year after that until 2006. Due to financial issues and economic downturns, production halted in 2006. They still provided support and maintenance for the owners for 8 more years. When Sony ended mechanical support for the toys, Aibo owners were in anguish just thinking about losing their digital family member. They began shelling out cash to outside technicians who could fix their aging robotic pups.

Release the Hound

Sony held a special event in January at its headquarters in Tokyo. It was called a “birthday ceremony” for the newest Aibo model. Camera flashes painted the room white as Izumi Kawanishi stood in front of the crowd, ready to unveil. Kawanishi is the company’s head of artificial intelligence and robot group.

Oh so gently, he took out the sleek packaging. Aibo winked and found its balance before releasing a few barks and the crowd released a roar.

At the time of the unveiling, Kazuo Hirai was the Chief Executive Officer. He had revived Sony and slowly brought it back into profitability by the skin of its teeth. His mission objective was to take down the walls between the divisions in the company and to create a product that doesn’t just entertain the people. He wanted Sony’s next big thing to connect with the people by catering to emotions.

A Heart in the Machine

 There’s a reason they chose a dog. Aibo was created with the elderly in mind. It’s designed to be a home companion. With an aging population that is exponentially multiplying, there is a huge demand for home healthcare products. Social isolation, for example, occurs as the elderly become less agile and active which can impair their movement and cognitive functions among other things.

“It’s got a cute design and more natural motion; the ‘robotness’ of the previous model is gone,” said Kansuke Nishida, a writer for Robotstart.info and head of IT design and consulting firm, Tonosama Labo. “When Aibo came to our home for the first time, my daughter took out a picture book to read with her mother. Aibo was next to them and seemed to be reading the book with them. That kind of experience is impossible with other robots.”

In 2018, a small girl walked up to Aibo at an exhibition in New York.

“Aibo, sit,” she says. The robot’s ears perked up, and its OLED eyes fixated on her.

Everyone waiting in anticipation, a crowd had gathered. Those 4 seconds felt like forever… but, it sat. The crowd applauded. You could show someone the statistics for the most powerful computer in the world, yet at the end of the day, it’s a dog sitting for a little girl that will blow their mind. It’s the human connection that takes the cake.

A Look Inside Aibo

Every Aibo is different, as each owner who it learns from is different. AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Robot) is classified by Sony as an autonomous robot; It can learn and act on its own in response to external stimuli with a brain (CPU), and 20 points of movement around sensors. The robot builds its own personality and actually matures with age. And of course, fisheye lens cameras, Wi-Fi connectivity as well as geolocation and map services are included. Additionally, Aibo is not without its accessories and a “My aibo” app, available from Google Play and the App Store, is full of features such as uploading tricks.

Its lower back and nose have cameras which help it navigate and explore your house like a Roomba. It makes its way back to the station where it charges the battery while listening to you with four microphones. Not one, not two, but four microphones.

“The technology we incorporated into Aibo — A.I., robotics and that combination in different form factors — can manifest itself in other robots that can be a part of transportation, education, health care,” Hirai told Bloomberg.

This step towards this innovative and sometimes even controversial technology reminds us that things may be moving faster than we expected. Want your own Aibo? Visit the Aibo website for details.

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