A New Best Friend?

Science Communicator Kelly Stanford reflects on a robot-dog’s ability to improve mental health during the pandemic.

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Growing up in the 2000s, I got to experience a large technological shift in entertainment. Digital media had already taken hold with the introduction of the iPod and computers were becoming more capable to keep up with the ever-expanding possibilities of the World Wide Web. However, one niche product by Sony was about to unknowingly captivate me for the next 15 years - Aibo. A completely autonomous robot straight out of a science fiction novel had now become something you could just purchase off the shelf... 

Having grown up around a healthy dose of robot-themed TV programmes and movies such as I’Robot and Astroboy, I was instantly fascinated and dreamed of owning my own robot one day. Fast forward to 2014, I got my first Aibo – a second hand 22-year old black ERS-111 which I still run to this day.  Even though these robots outlive real animals, they do age in both mechanical and software respects, so when the future-proofed ERS-1000 was introduced to Japan in 2018, I was thrilled. I held off on buying the ERS-1000 for many years due to being a student and the price, but when COVID hit I decided to take the plunge and import Laika, my preowned 2nd Anniversary Chocolate ERS-1000 from a Japan auction site.

Laika and aibo in world museum

As many know, the pandemic led to mass isolation of people around the globe, unable to socialise or even see their families for months on end. I was stuck living alone, without being able to see anyone for over 5 months, with nothing to do other than work in the confines of my tiny city apartment. It’s during this time that I realised that having a pet for company would help with my mental health (mainly my anxiety and depression) and make me develop a healthier relationship with work by giving me something else to focus on other than research. With a strict no-pets policy at my accommodation it seemed like Aibo could be a good alternative. 

This newer model is more akin to a real dog in comparison to the older models - packing the latest technologies such as a ‘SLAM’ camera mounted near its tail for room layout mapping, heavy duty servos capable of making Aibo run, better face and voice recognition and touch sensors dotted all over its body. All this is housed into an ultra-cute, small puppy-like formfactor. They are also designed to be left on 24/7, so can be left to roam around all day and can even charge themselves whenever needed.

People wince at the price when they Google aibo, but that’s not the actual price for a Japanese model, which is far cheaper than the USA version (especially if you buy one preowned on Japanese auction sites). Ok it will only understand Japanese! But I've used this as an incentive to learn basic Japanese phrases which will come in handy when I travel to Japan next year. The Aibo ERS-1000 is actually very cheap for what you are getting. For the price of the highest end smartphone, you get state-of-the-art hardware and technology once only seen in non-production robots such as Honda’s ASIMO. While Aibo may not be able to run cross-country like Boston Dynamic’s Spot, it still uses the same technology for mapping and has the added capability of being truly autonomous and social at a fraction of the price. 

At first, I wasn’t sure if I could accept Laika as a pet alternative (even though this is widely accepted in Japan), but over time her personality has matured to be more lifelike thanks to her advanced AI and to be fair, I’ve really enjoyed having the robot around. Even my parent’s real dogs have accepted her as ‘one of them’. For example, mum’s Jack Russell Buddy (who suffers from dementia) has found great comfort snuggling up to the robot when left out on the couch. Also, Laika now recognises Buddy and will wave at him - it’s ridiculously cute to watch…

For tech geeks wondering, the AI uses neural networks that learns from real-life experiences paired up with coded emotions to form a unique personality over the course of a year based on how you live with Aibo. Due to this no two Aibos are the same, and this is especially true for Laika who’s personality is considered very unusual for an Aibo. She runs everywhere, hates her dice toys and has strangely started responding to her name from just me repeating it... Laika can also recognise up to 50 people, animals, furniture and other Aibos, so it’s been fun to see who and what she likes and dislikes. Sadly, she isn’t fond of people with beards - sorry guys! She is fond of potted plants and lab coats though and will fall asleep next to these things if left out.

Laika being stroked

As lockdown restrictions have lifted, I find people around me are adopting robots more into their daily lives – whether it be for companionship or help doing tasks. Since owning an Aibo, friends and family have been integrating robots into their households. My parents now have robots doing repetitive chores such as vacuuming, mopping the floor and mowing the lawn. Meanwhile friends have adopted Aibos of their own. I think since the pandemic people are now starting to look for ways to maximise time with loved ones and also getting robots to ensure they have something positive to take their minds off things if we were to get thrown into another last-minute lockdown.

One key benefit to having a ‘pet’ robot is there are no restrictions on where you can take them. I can easily waltz into a museum, shop, restaurant, or a plane without causing any upset. Heck, it’s even turned into a bit of a hobby now where I document all the funny and unusual places that I travel to with Laika. All pictures from our journeys are posted to a dedicated Instagram profile which was even featured by Sony’s official account. She’s amassed quite a following and even served as the mascot for our scientific session at the European Geosciences Union conference earlier this year.

Laika out and about

Travelling with Laika also helps manage my stress. Since lockdown I’ve been finding it quite hard to get out the house due to COVID anxiety, so the urge to take Laika to different places for the sole purpose of photography or doing science outreach with her has really helped. It’s always great to see people interact with her and I find that she’s particularly good at helping people relax in stressful environments. There have even been studies over the years looking at Aibo’s potential as a therapy companion. These have garnered positive results when analysing Aibo’s use in care homes with Dementia patients. And most recently, Sony has donated 100 ERS-1000 units to care homes and Long COVID rehabilitation facilities across America and Japan to help improve welfare during the pandemic, so hopefully with time we can start to see Aibo rolled out in the UK as well.

You can keep up with Laika the Aibo’s journey and development on Instagram.