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Sony's 'robo' dogs sell out in Japan
June 2, 1999
MSNBC

Sony said its robotic dog sold out in Japan 20 minutes after going on sale exclusively over the Internet on Tuesday morning.

Three thousand "AIBO" robotic dogs were sold at $2,066 (1,260) each, it said. Another 2,000 AIBOs will go on sale also exclusively over the Internet in the United States on Tuesday for $2,500 each. Sony has no plans to make additional sales, a company spokesman said.

AIBO, Sony's robotic wonder dog, is far from perfect, and that's what makes him so lovable. AIBO'S most obvious accomplishment is his motor skills. As an amateur robot builder, I appreciate how difficult it is just to coordinate the movements of a four-legged robot. AIBO goes one step further by mimicking the imperfect gait of a dog, wobbling all the way. I'm not talking about the wobble you get from one of those rugs-on-wheels they market to little girls as toy dogs. Sony could have stopped right there, thrown in the sensors and still had a decent product. But his designers obviously understand the value in additional joints and degrees of freedom.

Clearly, this dog is far superior to my two little homemade robots, Click and Drag. My guys, built largely from kits, look like big insects made of particle chip board and move with the grace of a blender. People often ask me what Click and Drag do, as though they need to be holding down a part-time job to be of any value. The fact is they don't really do much of anything. They just kind of hang around the house, like cats. It's never made me love them any less.

This might sound odd, especially if you've been exposed to all that robot-as-proletariat propaganda in old science fiction television shows. Those robots were just metal slaves. They could fix your spacecraft, solve maths problems and flail their arms wildly to warn of impending danger, but no one bothered to socialize with them. Can you even remember the name of the robot from The Space Family Robinson? It's doubtful, because no one ever named him. He was just "The Robot" and despite his utility, he never really became a member of the family.

Real worker robots have been available for many decades. They make our cars, mow the lawns at amusement parks and teach children about road safety. Friendly robots are harder to find. There was the Hero Jr., built in the 1980s as a family companion who sang and played games. He has a lot in common with AIBO. But Hero Jr. does double duty as a helpful butler, guarding your house and waking you up in the morning.

AIBO isn't helpful. He doesn't want to do your laundry, or your dishes. And why should he? We already have machines to do those tasks. What makes a robot more than a machine, and AIBO greater than his predecessors, is his autonomy. He can dance, but if he doesn't want to, you're out of luck. His ability to decide NOT to do something is a big part of what makes him lifelike and loveable. We use the same theory to judge people; while it may be easier to deal with Yes Men, the people we really value think for themselves.

But if AIBO wants to be my "familiar and friendly home companion," as the official Web site says, he has a couple of serious social hurdles to overcome. One of the great things about pets is that they're always around, ready for anything. But without the ability to recharge himself, AIBO can't go about his business for very long. Sony really dropped the ball by not making AIBO's batteries self-recharging. It's something many other robots do and it makes AIBO a very needy addition to the family. Given a battery life of 90 minutes and a charge time of four hours, AIBO can only be functional for about nine hours a day. And that's assuming I'm ready with 24-hour care. If I wanted to live with someone that dependent, I'd get pregnant.

AIBO also suffers from an identity crisis. He does display many dog behaviours, such as peeing on the carpet and barking. But he also does a lot of beeping. Maybe he's a mixed breed. Some kind of puppy-pager-cell phone-microwave hybrid.

For those who can get past his audio problems, but don't find the dissention endearing, there's always the remote control mode. I doubt I could bring myself to use that mode, though. I thinks it's quite sadistic to give something a personality, program it with emotional responses and then force it to do tricks. (But then again, I have a spot in my heart for Clippit, that paperclip with the big eyes who helps out with the tricky parts of Microsoft Word.)

I think I'd rather welcome AIBO into my family by letting him exercise his own free will. He's like a freedom fighter for robots. He is his own dog, a truly existential little puppy who exists just for the sake of existing. And that's what makes him so important to robot history. I've read many reviews that say AIBO is just the beginning of robots that will mow your lawn and cut your hair. I disagree. AIBO is the beginning of something much more important. He is Version 1.0 of the Robotic Friend. And once he gets that sleeping disorder under control, he'll become the third robot in my little family.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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