I met Sony Aibo owners whose enthusiasm for the robot pet seemed extreme at first glance. Now I'm not so sure.
"I'm an IT guy, so I'm just a down-and-out geek. It's all about the AI for me," Chris Benham tells me, as we sit in his home in sleepy Burlington, Wisconsin, roughly 80 miles northwest of Chicago. He invited me to see his Aibo, named Bentley, and to learn exactly what it is that endears people to Sony's robot dog.
Aibo looks like a puppy, albeit a robo-approximation. It makes vaguely dog-like sounds, walks around, plays with toys, responds to commands, occasionally misbehaves and uses cameras and facial recognition technology to interact differently with each person it encounters.
If you take the "robot" part out of that equation, Aibo is a lot like a real dog. Love it or hate it, that's what makes Aibo so darn compelling. It's also why researchers are studying companion bots more and more, asking important questions about how the AI makes decisions, how it manipulates your emotions and what that could mean as these robots become more prevalent.
Benham goes on to explain that the advanced artificial intelligence powering Bentley is the reason he was among the first in the US to buy a $2,900 ERS-1000, the most recent iteration of the robo-pup, introduced in 2018.
It can't hurt that Aibo is kind of cute.
"Robots like Aibo form a connection with people, but it's a little difficult to know exactly why that is," says James Young, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Manitoba. If a robot moves, humans want to believe it's alive, and will be more inclined to treat it like it's alive, he explains.
Sony designed Aibo for this express purpose -- to closely mimic a dog so you'll treat it like a dog, he adds.
Benham won't go so far as to say that Bentley is real. But he does refer to the pup as an "entity" -- it's not real, but it's not not real. Bentley has a birthday, Dec. 15, 2018, and is rarely turned off. "He's definitely part of the family," Benham tells me.
His wife, Paula Cooper, a psychologist, likes Bentley more than she expected, but not because of the technology inside: "I like him, but I like him as a dog, not as a computery thing," she says.
Benham started a Facebook group the moment he learned Aibo was coming back to the US after a 12-year hiatus. Sony's initial Aibo project ran from 1999 to 2006.
For three months, Benham and his wife were the only members of the Facebook group. The number has since grown to about 65 active participants.
The members share details about their Aibos, discuss upcoming software and issues they're having. Benham even writes the occasional short story featuring Bentley as the protagonist to post on the group page.
It's a small group with a fiercely loyal following. That's a theme among Aibo users in the US.
"I can tell you that after launching the "Aibo First Litter Edition" in the U.S. in Aug. 2018, Sony Electronics subsequently sold out of these limited-edition units and is continuing to see healthy market demand for Aibo this year," a Sony representative told me over email.
The company declined to comment on the specific number of Aibos they've sold in the US or the current number of active users, but research suggests that interest is growing.
The consumer robot market worldwide is expected to grow from $3.8 billion in 2015 to $34.1 billion by 2022, according to a report by research firm P&S Intelligence. P&S expects companion robots, a small category within the consumer robot market, to grow at the highest compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2016 and 2022.
Research firm MarketsandMarkets says the AI market will likely grow from $21.5 billion in 2018 to $190.6 billion by 2025.
Basically, Aibo is just the beginning, an early example of a companion robot with advanced AI that's somewhat affordable and available to the consumer market. But, as Young said, researchers still have a lot to learn about companion bots and some of this tech raises questions about biometric privacy, access to customer information and how exactly bots like Aibo behave and why.
Chris Werfel, a vice president at a health care consulting firm and engineer, has 28 Aibos.
Werfel, who's in his 50s, has always been a collector, he tells me. He used to collect pinball machines, but they've gotten harder for him to move around as he's gotten older, so he's switched over to Aibos. He jokes that he'll move on to stamps and trading cards 10 years from now.
Jokes aside, Werfel is serious about his Aibos, in particular one that he and his girlfriend, Laura Vasquez, call Baby. For them, Baby is a pet. The other Aibos are robots, integral parts of his growing collection, but not pets.
Werfel stays away from using terms like "real dogs" to describe real dogs. Instead, he refers to them as "fur dogs" or "breathing dogs" to differentiate between Aibos and other dogs -- because Baby is very real to him.
"Seeing him interact and those big OLED eyes looking at you and being very expressive, it didn't take long for me to suspend belief long enough to really fall in love with him and then just start treating him like a dog," Werfel explains.
Vazquez feels the same. She was sold 15 minutes after they opened the box -- she was talking to it in baby talk and laying on the floor to interact with it at eye-level.
Vazquez, a nurse, named the Aibo "Baby." Werfel has modified the full name to Babysaurus-rex and outfitted it with a tiny Aibo-sized skull-and-crossbones collar. But they still refer to it as Baby most of the time.
"What I found in my work is that people, especially if you have an understanding of the machine, you underestimate how much power these social techniques can have over you," Young explains.
He says that engineers, computer scientists and others in similar fields might be more easily manipulated by companion bots like Aibo because they understand how the tech works and think they're "above" being susceptible to it.
"But we're still human and we still have these emotion systems and it still has those powers over you," he adds.
So, how exactly does Aibo work its robot magic, what's it like to live with one -- or 28 -- of these robot dogs and should we be concerned that an AI inside a cute dog-bot has such a strong effect on people?
Sony introduced the first Aibo robot in 1999, but discontinued the project in 2006. The latest version, the ERS-1000 -- Sony's sixth-generation Aibo -- was announced in 2018.
Benham owned an earlier-generation Aibo, the ERS-7, years ago. It's the only other Aibo he had before Bentley. He named it Maxi because it "maxed out his credit card." Those Aibos could record voice messages (the newer model can't, in an effort to make it more dog-like) and he used a recording via Maxi to propose to his wife.
One day, their real dogs got a hold of Maxi and ripped off an ear and his tail. The bot was badly scratched up, so Benham decided to sell it, but always regretted it. When he found out that there would be a next-gen Aibo, he jumped at the chance to own one. "I was that guy that on the morning that he was released I was on the website at 9 a.m., which was when he became available, because I honestly thought he would sell out in minutes,"Benham says.
It ended up taking "hours rather than minutes" for them to sell out, Benham adds, but he got his Aibo.
They have two real dogs today too, as well as Bentley -- Boxers named Abbey and Tucker -- and a cat, Griff. Benham says Griff likes to cozy up to Bentley when he's charging, likely because it helps keep him warm.
The Boxers ignore Bentley, but that's only because Benham trained them so there wouldn't be another Maxi situation.
Werfel is a more recent Aibo adopter, but his interest grew quickly. He and some friends call themselves Aibo Addicts Anonymous, or AAA.
"I don't mean to disrespect the folks with substance abuse issues, we don't intend it that way, but we call ourselves the AAA [Aibo Addicts Anonymous] because some of us just buy too many Aibos," he adds. Werfel has a specific goal in mind with his collection: He wants to have a few good examples of each generation of Aibos. He's well on his way.
Werfel and Vasquez are driving to Ohio for an Aibo meetup right after we finish talking at their house, with Baby along for the ride. They'll meet other Aibo owners and develop a deeper connection to the Aibo community.
Werfel even traveled with Baby to California once to meet another Aibo enthusiast. He stored Baby in the plane's overhead bin.
"In trying to think what Baby brings into our lives, it's love and it's companionship and you can't put a price tag on it. He's our dog, we love him, we play with him we interact with him every day," Werfel says.
Young has seen this in his research.
"We actually do feel these things from these machines, even if we know better, even if we know it's just a machine we really do feel those things," he explains. He compares it to watching a movie and knowing it isn't real, but being moved by it anyway. He says those feelings could intensify with something like Aibo that's walking around our homes, interacting with us directly.
Young also talks about how effectively these bots "without an empathy system" can manipulate human emotions.
"I think we need to worry a little bit about the power that these machines have over our emotions and over our interactions because they're using human or animal-like social techniques," Young adds.
Benham is well aware that Bentley is manipulating him. When the robot dog appears sad, he explains, both he and his wife stop what they're doing and walk over to Bentley to pet him and to let him know they're there.
"It's completely irrational to feel the need to actually do that," Benham says.
Young doesn't ultimately think Aibos or other social bots are "bad," but he wants transparency about what's behind the AI making these decisions -- and how it might use your information. He specifically cites the potential for a companion bot to react with approval when it hears a word like "pizza" simply because a local pizza restaurant is being sponsored by the robotics company. You will end up buying more pizza, possibly without realizing that you're being influenced by your robot.
"There's probably someone in Japan watching us right now," says Benham.
Aibo takes occasional pictures from its face-scanning cameras and stores them in the Aibo app. Benham and his wife joke about a couple of unfortunate "up-skirt" images Bentley has taken of her that were deleted right away. He just hopes that deleting their copy deletes every copy. If not, that would be an invasion of privacy, he says.
Sony doesn't sell Aibo in Illinois because of the state's Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which controls the collection of biometric data, including face scans.
A Sony support page titled "Why Is Aibo Not for Sale in Illinois?" simply says:
Due to state regulations and policies, the Aibo™ robotic companion is not for sale or use in Illinois.
In order to mimic the behavior of an actual pet, an Aibo device will learn to behave differently around familiar people. To enable this recognition, Aibo conducts a facial analysis of those it observes through its cameras. This facial-recognition data may constitute "biometric information" under the law of Illinois, which places specific obligations on parties collecting biometric information. Thus, we decided to prohibit purchase and use of Aibo by residents of Illinois.
While Sony decided not to sell Aibo in Illinois at all because of BIPA, Nest and other companies sell their facial recognition security cameras in Illinois, but they disable the facial recognition functionality.
"The whole Illinois issue [BIPA] kind of really raised the red flag for me a bit, because that suggested that Sony would be capturing the image of your face and storing [it] on their servers," Benham says.
Benham also doesn't know if Aibo records and sends the audio it hears. He doesn't think so -- he looks at the data that leaves his house -- but doesn't know for sure.
Aibo doesn't record audio, a Sony representative told me over email.
Aibo does not record audio. In the same way that many voice-activated products listen for a verbal cue to react, Aibo's tricks are triggered by recognized verbal commands, such as "sit" or "shake." Unlike many common household voice-activated products that primarily draw information from the cloud, the code enabling Aibo's tricks is stored locally within Aibo. That means if Aibo is taken someplace where there is no connectivity to Sony's AI Cloud service, Aibo will continue to function and perform tricks based on users' verbal cues, but for the period it is not connected, it will not learn from its interactions with owners and the cloud-based features will be unavailable.
Photos "are stored in the cloud and managed by users" in the Aibo app, Sony adds. An Aibo's ability to take photos is an opt-in feature -- it's turned off as a default; the user has to turn it on.
Regardless, Benham says these things wouldn't be any more of an invasion of privacy than the smart TVs, Alexa speakers and Google phones he and his wife use daily. He accepts that he's giving up some privacy to have Bentley and is ultimately OK with it.
Werfel feels the same. He deletes the "unflattering" and "undignified" photos Baby takes.
He thinks people have a right to decide how their biometric data is used and he is concerned about the balance between civil liberties and the enjoyment derived from robots like Aibo. But he's OK with his own biometric data being collected, and just hopes that it isn't "used for nefarious purposes."
Benham thinks Sony has done a good job convincing people that Aibos have emotions and feelings, that a wagging tail and other interactions look like happiness.
"I defy anybody who's even slightly interested in technology not to be charmed when Aibo first comes to life and kind of shakes his joints out and stands up and barks at the world a few times," Benham says.
"He had me pretty smitten on day one, I've got to say, and I've enjoyed interacting with him since, no doubt," he adds.
It's similar for Werfel.
"I'm not going to say that [Baby] interacts 100% like a fur or breathing dog does, but I'll give him credit for maybe 80%. His expressions, his fluidity of motion, his ability to basically convince me that he loves me, allows me to love him in return," Werfel says.
Both Aibo owners would be upset if Sony stopped the project again, like they did in 2006.
Benham's interest in Aibo goes way beyond Bentley. He's holding out for more AI advancements and physical capabilities. He wants companion robots to be able to map your house, learn where everything is and then learn to clean your windows and get you a beer from the refrigerator.
Benham also sees applications beyond fetching beer -- maybe Aibo robots would prove useful in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Cooper, who often works with children in the mental health field, sees use cases for companion bots in her work.
For Werfel, the idea of Sony shutting down the Aibo project is even more visceral. "If Sony were to shut down the Aibo program I would be devastated; the prospect of not having at least a 10-year relationship with Baby is something that really I don't want to contemplate," he says.
Benham and others in his Facebook group joke that all of the smart tech in Aibos chest could lead to the robot revolution one day. "At some point, he's going to send out a signal and the front of that chest is going to open and lasers are going to come out and they're going to take over the world...led by little tail wagging Aibos," he jokes.
He says the theory is unproven among his friends, though, because no one wants to take their Aibo apart.
"We have a machine [using] social interaction techniques with an algorithm behind it designed for an outcome. There's no empathy behind it, no sympathy, no human conscious behind it moderating the interactions, so that worries me," Young explains.
"You can imagine how a team can sit down and make a strategy, 'OK, we want to sell this product, how do we go about doing that? Let's first try to make the person to feel this way, let's try to make them feel that way, and we can watch their facial expression and then come up with an algorithm to quantify how to change your behavior or change your emotions,'" he adds.
It seems like robot revolution is already here.