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AIBO - The Wonder Dog, AI, and a Fur Coat

I recently discovered a rare breed of dog called AIBO. It’s the perfect pedigree since it doesn’t shed, chew furniture, or bite. You don’t even have to take it for a walk. Sadly though, it will soon be extinct. 

You see AIBO is a robotic dog that Sony built back in 1999. They came in a variety of colors, were programmed to speak over 1,000 words, and some understood more than a 100 including Spanish. They could even wag their tails when pat on the head. Back then this was cutting edge technology. 

AIBO and friend

AIBO and friend

My first thoughts were this is crazy.   Why would grown people pay some $2000 for fake dogs? Then I watched a video of an elderly Japanese couple who had one.   They talked to it, played with it, walked it, and even put it to bed. Suddenly it all made sense. People weren’t just buying a dog. They were buying love. 

While people loved them, Sony’s profit and loss didn’t measure up. Instead of selling tens of millions they only sold about 150,000. So, in 2007 Sony stopped production and then in 2015 shut down their repair division. This was so devastating to “pet” owners they formed support groups to help each other deal with the prospect that their aging pets would break down for good. 

If you think that’s over the top, how about a full-blown ceremonial funeral? The lifeless AIBO’s are lined up on the altar while Buddhist priests chant prayers and owners pray for their souls. The formal ritual helps grieving owners deal with their loss as their beloved companions now become parts donors to other dogs.

For those who just can’t let go, there is cyber-vet Nobuyuki Norimatsu, a former Sony engineer. With a waitlist of some 200 dogs it can take several months at a minimum cost of $200, but owners don’t care. They just want their best friends healthy again. 
This cute little canine’s popularity grew world-wide. An AIBO was once featured on the sitcom Frasier and one US owner’s collection is worth $125,000 today. It’s a toy that changed the world. 

What’s in our future? Domestic pets could be replaced by robotic impostors by 2025 according to Australian researcher Dr. Jean-Loup Rault. “Robotic pets will take off in the next 10 to 15 years and tech companies are already jockeying for position in the market,” he said. 
First up is WowWee which debuts its Canine Home Intelligent Pet or “CHiP” this fall. Priced at $199, it brags to be the next best thing to a real dog. It can fetch, auto charge itself, wake you in the morning, and greet you at the door when you come home. These elemental basics are what satisfy a human’s need to have a real dog.   So if an animatronics could provide that same satisfaction then humans, who are innately anthropomorphic, could conceivably embrace them. This might explain why people became so attached to a plug-in pet like AIBO. 
Fast forward a few years and we’ve gone from toy bots to super bots so sophisticated and intelligent they could rule the universe. Today’s BOTS are hard core taskmasters designed to simplify and improve man’s life much like machines and automation did during the Industrial Revolution.   

Dog Bots making headlines are SPOT whose specialty is military maneuvers, bomb sniffing, and disaster rescue; mule-sized rugged terrain champ Big Dog who can run 4 mph and carry loads up to 350 lbs; and N003 a robotic guide dog for the blind. If you’re looking for help with chores or to bring you a beer, General Dynamic’s MiniSpot is at your service. 

If a human can fall in love with a fake dog, could they fall in love with a desk lamp? Don’t laugh. If you’re world-renowned robotics visionary Guy Hoffman the answer is yes. He believes humans can bond emotionally with a robot. His robots are far from humanoid in appearance, yet they become human-like through their movements. Hoffman says it’s their motion that makes humans feel emotion for them and want to treat them more like companions.   
In “Robots with Soul” you can see two of Hoffman’s robotic creations. There’s marimba player Shimon free-styling with a rapper and Travis, a 2-headed speaker jamming to music. What’s significant here is how all of a sudden the rapper engages in eye contact with the robot like he’s another musician.   And Travis goes from an odd looking robot to a cute little guy you want to hang with. 

An android world is driven by artificial intelligence. If robots get smarter than humans, will we become nothing more than a house pet? Those were recent comments made by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. His solution is a neural mesh that fits on the brain to give it digital computing capabilities. He believes the two working together would let humans stay on pace with artificial intelligence. It’s all alien creepy, but maybe not so far-fetched. 
Ray Kurzweil - one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers, futurists and now Google’s Director of Engineering - says that in 15 years computers are going to trump people. And that by 2045 they will be a billion times more powerful than all of the human brains on Earth.   He cites the AI revolution as the most profound transformation of human civilization we will ever experience. It will allow us to reprogram our own biology and manipulate matter at atomic and molecular levels. That kind of sci-fi supremacy means we’re in for a wild ride.

At this point though, no one knows for sure where this technology will lead us. But the Japanese have taken a huge step in pushing forward. They recently introduced Pepper, a talking humanoid robot that reads emotions and tells jokes when you are sad. It sold out of its initial 1,000 units in one minute back in June at a cost of around $1600 each. Robot staff is slowly going main stream being rolled out in stores, airports, and hotels throughout Japan.
President Hideo Sawada of the new Henn-na Hotel says, “In the future, we’d like to have more than 90 percent of hotel services operated by robots.   They will be capable of having conversations with humans.” But the technology doesn’t stop there. Guest room doors will open by facial recognition and instead of air conditioners a radiation panel will detect body heat and adjust a room’s temperature accordingly. You get all that for $60 to $119 dollars. Beat that Priceline!

Kurzweil believes the 21st century will achieve 1,000 times the progress of the 20th as technology continues to advance exponentially. Google will know the answer to your question before you ask it and it will have read every email or document you’ve ever written and every idle thought you’ve ever typed into a search-engine. It will know you better then you know yourself. That’s too scary a thought to even think about.

Like it or not, robots are the new reality and might be your next best friend. As artificial intelligence reinvents the universe, where do man and his dog fit in? By mid-century an increasingly urbanized world population of nearly 10 billion could mean that real animals will be a luxury only for the super-rich. 

Until then, I’m going to enjoy my humanness and treasure my Ms. Maru. I want to feel her fur coat, look into her soulful eyes, and hear that familiar annoying bark. While a robot dog can do many things, it can’t give you sloppy kisses that fill your heart with love. That’s the real deal.