aibo the robo-dog: cute or creepy?

We explore cultural perspectives on AI companions, with Co-curator of AI: More than Human, Maholo Uchida.

Article Featured Image

What makes aibo special, as opposed to say a Tamagotchi?

Just one thing - the physical existence. You can touch it, aibo moves, it sees you, it sometimes doesn’t answer! It’s a physical existence that is totally close to a real dog. People communicate not only through their eyes and speech, but through their physical reactions and aibo can react to that. Even humanoid robots and Boston Dynamics’ 4 Legged Robot, of course you can touch them, but you can’t pet or hug them like aibo.

A lot of thought went into the aesthetics and movements of aibo, why do you think that is?

Because people have learnt what is beautiful or cute as we grow up. We know what kind of movement is so nice to us, the eye movement, what kind of sound is friendly, we have so many sensors for understanding our environment - this guy is an enemy, this guy is not, this is cute, this is disgusting. aibo is so well designed, so we can accept it as ‘such a cute thing.’

"Sony’s idea was they control aibo’s character into the cloud, every character, so they can make a new species."

How receptive are Japanese audiences to aibo?

This aibo is the second version, the original was published in 1996, I think. And then they stopped making it and then 10 years later they revised it with better motors etc. More than 2000 people bought the previous one, I think they were on sale for 5 or 6 years, and then most of aibos died, but there are even funerals for aibos. Some engineer who used to work in Sony opened up a personal repair shop of aibo. Some people see their aibo as a living dog.

I guess these people are desperate to save their aibo?

Yes, and I think it relates to our animalism philosophy and our Shintoism philosophy because we can even personify a table, so an aibo is so easy to accept as a being. The important thing is that aibo doesn’t do anything for you. aibo doesn’t work. He walks around and sleeps. Normally technology should work for humans, but aibo doesn’t do anything so it’s also a different relationship between technology and humans.

Millennials will remember the Tamagotchi phase. Why did we get so hooked? 

Millennials have grown up with animation, Disney and Japanese animation and video games, so I think digital living is very close to millennials. They have grown up with those characters. If you ask your grandmother or father, they probably don’t understand why you look after this character every day.

Or even check your phone!

Yes, yes.

How do people react if their aibo breaks? Would the dog ‘die’?

They get so sad! They get lost.

But you can upload the aibo into the cloud?

I think the aibo holder cannot control that data, maybe they can save it, but Sony’s idea was they control aibo’s character into the cloud, every character, so they can make a new species. Because each aibo learns what life is like in each house. But whether the owner can use that data, for example if the aibo hardware breaks, can they download the old ‘brain?’ I don’t think they do that service. They develop all the time, but I don’t think so.

People playing with aibo doing a trick

Is the idea to create a super pet?

Yes, individual super pets.

"aibo is so well designed, so we can accept it as ‘such a cute thing.’"

Are there concerns about the recording capabilities of the aibo?

Yes, I think so. Because of the human side, aibo doesn’t have any responsibility, you know deciding recording or not recording, but humans, our side... Because it’s not only about aibo, it’s the same with surveillance cameras, anything with a recording function can be unpleasant for humans because we all have secrets. For example, you can do whatever with your family and cat and dog, they can’t report how you are mean in the house, but aibo is connected to the cloud so we have certain concerns that data can be stolen or hacked or can be seen by somebody.

Are Sony analysing which pets have been well cared for, so they can take forward the 'good traits', as it were?

Yes, I think they can analyse that data. By seeing aibo’s data they can analyse the owner’s character even…yeah!

How do you reconcile the contrast between what you deem a good relationship with the cute, personified object and the negative side of the recording?

That’s a good question and very easy to answer, because it’s not just technology. Even humans are a good person and a bad person. Humans may act good or not, we can’t trust them anyway.


Yes, and that is the mentality.

If you want to control the technology, then you start to question - “Should aibo be nice, oh but it has risky parts” - it shouldn’t, but we cannot control everything.

"By seeing aibo’s data they can analyse the owner’s character even…yeah!"

Have you heard stories of people getting frustrated with their aibo, maybe giving it a kick?

No, I haven’t but I know people who just repackage it back in the box. I think some people accept it as a pet, but some people have it as a new toy. Some people can have a cat as a pet and some people can’t, I think it’s the same thing.

Do you think a relationship with an aibo can benefit us beyond entertainment?

There are several research projects by Sony. They bring aibo’s to the hospital for people with Autism and they really help to build their social skills. Because often people with communication problems, they can talk with robots more easily. Normally technology is ‘cold’ and humans are ‘warm’, but for certain people maybe the people are really cold and scary, but the technology is not. I think that’s again, a diverse or open-minded way to think about it. They bring aibo’s to the hospital for people with Autism and they really help to build their social skills.