Can A Robot Be Your Pal?

Fifty-seven percent of consumers around the world own pets according to more than 27,000 online consumers who were surveyed in 22 countries.[i] Dogs are the most popular pet globally. The United States is a particularly pet-friendly country with 78 million dogs in their homes.[ii] In the future, many human-owned dogs may be robots. It is possible they will provide companionship comparable to live dogs. This is important, especially in these difficult times. According to Ageless Innovation, a Pawtucket, Rhode Island maker of health, wellness and fitness products, a study of 271 independently living seniors who suffered from loneliness found “there was improvement in their mental well-being, in sense of purpose and optimism” after 30 days with a robotic pet cat or dog.

Bridget Carey is an American technology journalist and host of CNET Update. In November 2018, she had a special opportunity to take the new Sony Aibo robot dog into her New York apartment for a week. What made the review opportunity special was she has a dog and a two-year-old daughter. Watch video of Bridget, her daughter, and Aibo, “My Week with Aibo: What It’s Like to Live with Sony’s Robot Dog“.[iii] and watch a video review of Aibo with the Washington Post at end of story.

Sony has been making robotic pets for more than 20 years. As technology has evolved, so has the robo-pup. The latest version of Sony’s Aibo, pronounced eye bo, became available in the United States at the beginning of 2019. Aibo could be perceived as a home automation device when you consider all of its sensors and cameras. In reality, it is nothing like a smart home device. The giveaway is the wagging tail and the way Aibo trots around your home. Aibo’s goal is not home security or automating your lights. In Japanese, Aibo means “pal” or “partner”, and its sole mission is companionship. Ms. Carey’s two-year-old child found Aibo a delightful addition to the family. Her Golden Labrador did not find Aibo at all interesting. Aibo may cause chronically ill seniors to think less about their aches, pains, and loneliness and more about their pet.

A companion Apple or Android mobile app enables you to set Aibo’s gender to male or female. This affects the pitch of Aibo’s voice and how he or she walks. You can also set the color of Aibo’s eyes, teach it new tricks, and even take photos with the camera in its nose. He or she can understand more than 50 voice commands. All of this is made possible by a plethora of technology components inside the 12 inches tall, 12 inches long, 7 inches wide, 5-pound robot including a super-fast computer chip, OLED displays (eyes), an audio speaker, four microphones, two cameras, a dozen sensors, and Wi-Fi.

In terms of movement, Aibo has 22 degrees of freedom (DOF). To put this in perspective, the human body has 244. For example, our hands have 27 DOF. Each of our four fingers can move in four different ways. The thumb has five DOF, and the wrist has six. Aibo stands out versus any toy or consumer robot with its 22 DOF. Its head can move along three axes, one each for the mouth, neck, and waist. Each leg (front and back paws) has three axes. Each ear has one DOF and the tail has two.

The purpose of all the technology is to make the beagle-looking Aibo seem like a real puppy. Reviewers say the mission was accomplished. A review in TechCrunch said,

A long press of the power button on the collar wakes him up. He stirs slowly, from a near fetal position, his paws extending outward with a stretch. He acknowledges his limbs with a yawn and slowly stands, shaking himself out as though he’d just run through the sprinklers in the yard.[iv]

Aibo uses artificial intelligence and deep learning technology to recognize and remember 100 friends and family. He remembers what makes different people happy based on their reactions. As Aibo learns its environment and develops relationships, its personality becomes unique. As an owner, Aibo becomes uniquely your Aibo. After Bridget Carey at C|NET spent a week with Aibo in her home, she said,

Aibo loves praise with a nice rub on the head, chin and back — or give him some positive verbal feedback. (“Good boy!”) Teach him tricks and watch him respond to voice commands. Cameras and sensors on his front side help the dog sense nearby people, as well as find his signature pink toy ball, bone and charging station. A camera near his bum points to the ceiling to map the layout of your home, so over time he learns how to get around.[v]

Aibo connects to the Sony cloud which uses artificial intelligence to help Aibo become increasingly more real. The nice thing is you don’t have to take him for a walk several times a day. The only downside is the cost – Aibo sells for $2,900. A friend of mine pointed out the price tag is cheap compared to a real dog’s veterinarian and food costs. For those who love their real dogs, Aibo is no replacement. However, for millions of infirmed seniors, Aibo could be heaven sent.

[i] Steve Dale, “World Pet Population Data a Mixed Bag,”  Steve Dale Pet World (2016), https://stevedalepetworld.com/blog/world-pet-population-data-mixed-bag/

[ii] Tammy Dray, “Number of Dogs & Cats in Households Worldwide,”  the nest (2018), https://pets.thenest.com/number-dogs-cats-households-worldwide-8973.html

[iii] Bridget Carey, “My Week with Aibo: What It’s Like to Live with Sony’s Robot Dog,”  c|net (2018), https://www.cnet.com/news/my-week-with-aibo-what-its-like-to-live-with-sonys-robot-dog/

[iv] Brian Heater, “Up Close and Hands-on with Sony’s Aibo,”  TechCrunch (2018), https://techcrunch.com/2018/12/20/up-close-and-hands-on-with-sonys-aibo/

[v] Carey, “My Week with Aibo: What It’s Like to Live with Sony’s Robot Dog”.

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