Artificial intelligence (AI) is all the rage right now even though it has been around since the 50s. Perhaps l’ll look into that some other time, but right now I would like to talk about a small robotic pet Aibo by Sony that has made a comeback after 11 years of being discontinued.
I was 25, living in Finland and working at a small R&D unit of respected Finnish internet security company SSH. My boss introduced the whole office to Aibo in October 2000, when a second generation was released. He was 28 and for a while the oldest guy in the office of about 8 people. We worked in a relaxed (Google like) environment. Our community room included a kitchen, full sized pool table, free cookies and free Coca Cola machine (coders couldn’t survive without it), few bookshelves filled with technical books, various DVD movies, Star Trek DS9 episodes (VHS) and magazines. All videos were owned by my boss and we could watch them on the couch via LCD projector and surround sound (after working hours). One time he brought Nerf guns so we could play with them in the hallways. It was a great way to blow off some steam after new code release days when we would be working until midnight to meet the deadline.
My boss practically lived in the office, so it was not that strange when one day he brought to work a cute little robot dog (ERS-210 was actually modeled after a lion cub), that could recognize touch (on the head, under the chin and back) and simple voice commands. You could even record his name to which he would then respond with movement, sounds and LED lights in the face and tail. Left on its own, it would walk around, play and sit down. In time it would learn and mature. It came with a ball that it would play with and bark at. I would have loved to have it at home and imagining being even more fun if I would have kids at the time (check the video at the end in this spirit).
Few years later in November 2003 I wrote a short article [an inspiration for this blog] about it for Slovene online portal SIOL.net (translated from Slovene):
Aibo – An intelligent robot
Aibo is a robot by Sony (in the image of a small plastic dog) with built-in artificial intelligence, which starts learning from the first moment we bring it home and turned it on. Built-in sensors are sensitive to vision, sound and touch, but it can also walk independently. There is also a ball in the box, to which it playfully responds and eventually learns to play with it. We can also teach it things with additional software that we download into his system. The latest program has a face recognition logic, so Aibo will separate and respond differently to familiar and strange faces. Over time, his personality will change, depending on his well-being and how the environment responds to him. If you have a PC, you can connect to Aibo via wireless connection and monitor its movements. A wireless connection also allows Aibo to notify you in a fun way when you receive a new e-mail and then read it to you out loud. This is the first real electronic pet that is not predictable and will keep you entertained for a long time.
Aibo robots were popular choice for education use because they were fairly inexpensive compared to average research robots that include articulators, vision system and computer. One of more interesting accomplishments is a RoboCup Four-Legged League, in which all teams compete with identical fully autonomous Aibo models in a soccer match. There is no human or computer input during the match. The Four-Legged League ran from 1999 to 2008.
In November 2003 Sony released the third and last generation of Aibo priced at 1600USD. This series was explicitly shaped as a dog, because previous models were available in many colors and three different designs (dog, lion cub and space explorer). In 2006 the company announced it was closing down all its robotic projects, failing to generate enough profit. The decision to start making robots for entertainment was based on prediction of 1997 by Sony’s experts that by 2010 personal robots would be commonplace in most households.
With technological advancements over last decade Sony decided to jump back onto AI/robot frenzy announcing a comeback with the most life-like fourth generation Aibo. They call it robot companion and it comes with SIM/LTE mobile and Wi-Fi internet connection and 3–year AI Cloud Plan that enables Aibo to upload day-to-day life experiences to Sony’s AI engine. Built-in AI works in conjunction with Cloud AI to develop unique personality, which grows and evolves over time, by using database of those memories combined with collective intelligence of individual Aibo robots to evolve and enhance the product’s capabilities. If the robot is in a location without internet it will keep performing learned tricks, but will not learn anything new. This model recognizes up to 100 faces and memorizes if the person is friendly or not and responds accordingly.
Of course there’s official app (Android and iOS) My aibo for accessing system settings, owner’s information, pictures taken by Aibo’s built in camera and adding “tricks” to its repertoire. Interestingly some of the app’s fun features like playing with virtual Aibo are intended for people who don’t even own it.
It was released in January 2018 and you can have it for a hefty 2900USD (https://us.aibo.com/). At this point Sony only sells them in Japan and USA, but they are considering other countries as well.
Other home robots
This time around Sony has some competition. Vector by Anki is a tiny friendly robot with built-in Alexa assistant that can make your every day life easier by telling you the weather, timing your tasks like cooking, snap a photo or dance for you. With 250USD price tag it is considerably more affordable and provides a smaller step towards less scary robot revolution. For more serious enthusiasts who would also like an option to customize it by exchanging hands with 3D printed creations, adding a trailer or hand code extra features, there’s Misty II by MystyRobotics. You can pre-order it for 2400USD (retail price 3200USD).
Nevertheless Aibo remains unique by focusing on pet functionality and just like real pets, becoming a life companion to [lonely] people. It will be interesting to see how this field develops as it is already raising many concerns and questions about privacy and collected data being shared with AI and company servers.