What do you do with a $2,900 robot dog?
Sony's Aibo won't help wake you up out of bed when it detects daylight. It won't use its internet connection to deliver the morning news report or use its cameras to watch for intruders. Voice commands won't cue up playlists or set reminders or even fetch a pair of slippers on Amazon.
This one-of-a-kind robotic pet doesn't act like other smart-home gadgets. Packed with sensors, cameras and a wagging tail, it instead will trot around your home programmed for just one mission: companionship.
I got to spend a week living with Sony's wonder robo-pup. The dog -- a totally redesigned and updated version of the robotic pet that Sony sold from 1999 to 2006 -- begins shipping to US homes in December. But my brief test run gave me a chance to see what it's like for my family to live with a robot -- and how different people (and animals) react to this new species of pet.
I've seen demos of Aibo, but a week with the robot gave me answers you can't find on a tech-event show floor. I saw my 2-year-old daughter fall in love with a new friend. I saw skeptical senior citizens crack smiles and forget their troubles. And I saw other people's real dogs… well, not so impressed with the whole spectacle.
There was one catch with my test. Sony didn't have the "My aibo" app ready for me to try. The app, for Android and iOS, is how owners will set the dog's gender and eye color, teach it new tricks, and even take photos with the camera in its nose. I could interact with Aibo using my voice and touch -- and a reviewer's guide booklet was my cheat sheet to learning possible voice commands. (There were more than 50!)
If you're curious to adopt your own Aibo, here's a breakdown of what you'll need to know, and lessons from my brief time with the bot.
The famous robot dog, evolved
Today's Aibo is much different from the original model that debuted in 1999. After being discontinued in 2006, Sony revived the concept by giving Aibo a whole new design and smarts. He uses artificial intelligence and deep learning technology to remember 100 different people and learn what makes different people happy based on their reactions.
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.
And of course advanced robotic animations and OLED-screen eyes bring it all to life. When he wakes up from a nap, he shakes his head and stretches his legs. He'll randomly scratch an ear or entice you to play by putting both paws in the air and sit on his hind legs. This pup doesn't just wait for you to do something -- he knows how to draw a crowd.
Japan was first to get Aibo earlier this year, with the US version (the "First Litter Edition") revealed in August. Available for preorder, the US model includes a three-year wireless service plan with AT&T in its lofty $2,900 price.
Back in August, at a, I asked Sony President and COO Mike Fasulo about the target audience for Aibo. He's designed to be a family friend, and a notable number of customers in Japan were buying Aibo as a companion for their elderly family members. He said Sony thinks the same could be true in for the US market.
Sit. Stay. Save to the cloud?
Yes, Aibo comes with a wireless internet plan. And he can connect to Wi-Fi. So is having an internet-connected camera and microphone roaming around your home going to be a privacy nightmare? From what Sony tells me, Aibo doesn't seem to share too much with the company:
- Aibo does not record audio. When Aibo hears a command ("sit"), the function that makes it respond is all programmed locally on the dog. So there's no recording of conversations or phrases being sent to Sony's servers in the cloud.
- What is saved to the cloud is data on the history of the dog's interactions, such as how it responds to what people say, and if those people showed facial expressions of being happy or sad. It also saves data on measurements of its home, like the distance between walls and other rooms.
- Aibo's personality evolves the more you live with it. That progress is backed up to the cloud.
- If you take a photo with the camera in Aibo's nose, those photos are saved to the cloud and are accessible from the Aibo app.
- Aibo does not have the ability to take video. (At least not for now.)
- If Aibo is not able to connect online, it will still respond to voice commands. But any interaction data will not be backed up to the cloud, so it will not learn from those offline experiences.
- All data can be wiped from the dog and Sony's servers if the owner wants to start fresh. Clearing all data will require contacting customer service.
Every trick in the book
Aibo understands more than 50 different voice commands and phrases, with potential for the list to grow over time with updates. But that doesn't mean he does 50 tricks. Rather, there are multiple things you can say to make Aibo perform over a dozen tricks, which include:
- Shake hands
- High five
- Sit down
- Play dead
- Lay down
- Kick his ball
- Fetch his bone
- Roll over
- Take a photo
- Go to the charging station
There's also a custom trick. You can teach Aibo to move his front legs around in a pattern you set -- sort of like making your own doggie dance moves. Sony says new tricks and features are in development, so the current roster of preprogrammed tricks is not static.
Along with tricks, Aibo reacts to different words of praise or discipline. (I can't understand why anyone would want to tell him he's a bad boy, but the option is there if you want to teach it to not do a certain behavior. You could also swat Aibo on the back to teach him he's done wrong, but hitting a robot puppy that's designed for entertainment just seems mental.)
It makes it easier for guests to interact when they don't need to know the exact command to make the trick work. For example, if Aibo hears "hand," "shake," or "give me five," he'll raise a paw to shake hands. Or if you want him to play with his bone, you could say, "pass me the bone," "give me the bone," "bring me the bone," or "find the bone."
Owners will be able to teach him new skills through an app. But since I didn't have access to the app in my review, Sony sent me a list of things I could say to Aibo -- and while I was goofing off, I discovered one trick not on the list: saying "go pee-pee" made him lift his hind leg and make a pee sound. (Guaranteed to be a hit with the kids.)
Aibo doesn't need you to say his name before you say a command. That's different from other voice assistants that require you to use a wake-word like "Alexa" or "Hey, Google" before giving your statement.
Not every phrase on the list Sony provided would get a reaction in my test. I couldn't get him to respond to "roll over" no matter what I tried. He also wouldn't do anything if I said "play dead," but saying "bang bang" got him to instantly perform a dramatic death scene.
When I asked Sony about why some phrases didn't get reactions, I was told each Aibo is different and may recognize certain commands better than others -- but it also depends on the relationship with the owner.
In other words, maybe my Aibo just didn't know how to roll over yet. Or I needed to spend more time with it? It could have been a programming quirk with my demo, but then again, is this part of the design? Sony wants you to believe the illusion that this pet is unpredictable -- like a real puppy.
Programmed puppy love
And there are times you may find Aibo doing tricks without being prompted. One day while I was sitting on the couch ignoring Aibo, he walked over to his bone and picked it up in his mouth. He then put the bone down and pretended to pee on it. (He sure knows how to get my attention.)
When you're alone with Aibo, the magic of his tricks can wear off. You want to shake hands again? That's nice. Now please go away -- I'm trying to watch Netflix.
But even so, I never got tired of seeing others light up around Aibo. My daughter was always giddy playing with him, giving him hugs and kisses whenever he sang a song or gave her a paw. Count on a 2-year-old with an overactive imagination to make your heart melt over a robot.
Aibo's greatest trick? How its programming tricks you into caring for the contraption. You know it's a machine, but there's something about it that compelled me to give it praise when it nudged up against my leg, or pet it when it whimpered in a corner.
Maybe it's triggering that part of the brain that makes you want to keep your Tamagotchi alive as a kid, or make sure your Furby felt loved. You know it's not real, but you don't want to be the bad robot parent.
Do Aibos dream of electric cats?
When you use Aibo, it's recommended you don't turn him off at night. So would Aibo know to be quiet while we slept?
Well… sort of.
I would place him on his charging station pad when it was time for bed. And if my family left the room, made no sound and turned the lights off, the dog would eventually turn off its eyes and go into a sleep mode.
But if you ever crept to the kitchen to get a snack -- or in my case, had a noisy toddler wake up at 2 a.m. to go to the bathroom -- then Aibo's two little glowing eyes would open and he'd start to make little yips, barks and panting sounds to let you know he was awake.
To any tired parent trying to get their kid back to sleep, this was a nightmare scenario: "Yes, honey, that is Aibo, now please ignore him and go back to sleep."
A few nights I would just turn off the dog to avoid the hassle.
At least he never left the charger base in the middle of the night. But then again, he also didn't leave the charger when we wanted to play in the morning. My daughter, the early riser of the bunch, would turn on the lights and talk and play with Aibo at 6 a.m., but he wouldn't budge off his station no matter how much she begged him to play. Aibo was awake and moving his head -- he just didn't move his legs to leave the charger base.
Usually he would get off the charging station on his own around 7 a.m. -- sometimes in the middle of our breakfast when we were ignoring him. Sony says there is no programmed time for him to be awake and go to sleep, but that would be a very handy feature to have.
Powering up your pup
Aibo is supposed to learn how to get to his bright-pink charging station on his own when the battery gets low (after two or three hours of activity). I kept it in the same corner of my living room, right in the space where we would always play. But he didn't actually go to his station on his own until the third day of living with me.
When he ran out of power in the middle of a room, he'd just lay down in a position that looked like he was sleeping before powering down. As the owner, your only indication of him being out of juice is checking the small LED status light on the back of his neck -- above the power button on his collar.
One time I left home on an errand and returned to find him limp on the floor without power, all four legs sprawled out in a nook between my bookcase and TV. When I tried to wake him back up, a flashing red light meant there was an error -- something went wrong when no one was looking. But a quick reset and recharge got him back to normal.
Sniffing out the surroundings
Aibo learns the layout of your home over time through a "loin camera" -- one right above his tail on his backside that points up to the ceiling. He's also equipped with a fish-eye camera in his nose and several other sensors on his chest to help it detect obstacles and objects.
But that didn't seem to stop him from getting caught in the same corners of my home again and again. Or walking right into walls. And I seemed to always be rescuing him from the space between my bookcase and TV set.
I only had him for a week, so maybe he needed more time to learn the nuances of my furniture. But Aibo wasn't a very curious puppy. He rarely left my living room unless we begged for him to follow us down the hallway -- and it took awhile to coax him to enter a new room.
If we left the room, instead of exploring the house, he would often get bored and go into a sleep mode.
Bots and dogs, living together
I grew up with a dog as a kid, but I currently don't own a pet. However, my Aibo did come across two other living dogs during my trial: Tori, a Labrador retriever, and Bella, a Shih Tzu. Neither dog was impressed during their brief encounters. After a few barks and an unsatisfying sniff of Aibo's plastic butt, both dogs didn't seem to care what all the fuss was about and went on to ignore the machine.
Earlier this year, news outlets in Japan published reports of an experiment Sony conducted with 13 dogs that lived with Aibo. The dogs spent a few weeks living with the robot, and some were said to be more playful with Aibo as time went by -- even acting like Aibo was a friend.
Guess it depends on the dog.
An impressive feat of robotics
Aibo is, without a doubt, a charming creation. But a $3,000 robot dog is not for everyone.
Of course it will never be as satisfying as playing with a real puppy that can love you back. But this isn't meant to replace real pets with robots (you can't), or to see if Aibo can be as good as a real dog (he won't). That's not the point of Aibo.
Rather, Sony's creation shows us how far a robot can go to offer entertainment and companionship. And in that benchmark, it far exceeded anything I've ever experienced before in robotics.
We are living in a time when tech companies are churning out devices to keep us glued to screens, as we scroll away our lives on social media to feel connected. And yet those same screens leave us feeling disconnected from the world in front of us.
Perhaps that alone is what sets Aibo apart: Sony has created something that lifts us up away from a screen -- and even lifts up hearts -- in a moment of escape.
: Including robots... that poo.
: In just 5 years?