Companionship between man and animal dates back thousands of years into the earliest eras of recorded history, with these bonds featuring in the histories of Egypt, Rome, and other cultures of the past. Unfortunately, domesticated animals have all the vulnerabilities and frailties of their wild counterparts, which has led many researchers on a quest to create a synthetic equivalent capable of providing companionship for an entire lifetime. While past efforts into robotic pets have been mixed, advances in artificial intelligence are causing at least one major tech company to revisit the concept.
First released in 1999, Sony’s Aibo was one of the first products of its type to be released for a broad consumer audience. Previously, projects to create robotic animals, particularly dogs, were strictly research or military tech endeavors. Despite its limitations, Aibo achieved popularity and new models and versions were released up until 2005, when the line was discontinued. Dr. Toshitada Doi, the genius behind the tech that made the original Aibo possible, even held a mock funeral for the project, which over 100 Sony colleagues attended to celebrate and honor the project.
However, Japanese citizens looking for a robot companion will soon have a chance to purchase an updated version of the beloved robotic dog. Set to release in January of 2018, the new version of Aibo takes full advantage of current technology to create a companion capable of much more than its predecessor. The new Aibo has a two hour battery life and takes about three to recharge. Standing at roughly one foot tall, he can wag his tail, play simple games, and respond to human voice commands or gestures. The unit is equipped with sensors to take in and record sounds and images from its environment, using this information to better adapt to its owner’s behaviors and needs. Aibo’s deep learning software, supported by a connection to a cloud database of of other units’ observations, make it much more intelligent, lifelike, and versatile than the original model.
As part of the purchase, users will also have to subscribe to a monthly service which provides LTE and Wi-Fi connectivity, along with some other unique features. Users can view pictures taken from Aibo’s perspective and even download new tricks for their unit from an online store. While these features are interesting, the high cost of the unit-about $1700-plus the added subscription fee may be too high for some. That said, it’s exciting to see Sony revive the robotic pet concept and hopefully other companies will try their hand at similar projects.