The 21st Century Dog?

Although they'll never replace real dogs, Sony's AIBO robot dogs are quite fetching...

A couple of weeks ago, our CFO (and several hundred thousand other consumers) received an invitation from Sony Corporation to register for a chance to adopt an AIBO. This was the first time we'd heard about this robotic wonder dog, which neither drools nor sheds, but we quickly gave each of our real dogs a beef chew to keep 'em busy so we could spend some uninterrupted time online learning about the ERS-111 special edition of Sony's AIBO entertainment robot.

We discovered that this amazing Sony pseudo-dog is an "autonomous robot that acts in response to external stimulation and its own judgement." Each AIBO develops its own unique personality by living and interacting with humans. It has emotions and instincts. It learns and matures. It responds to praise and scolding. It beeps and bows and plays with its favorite toy (a pink ball). It walks on four legs just like more traditional household pets. It's not really alive, but it's a technological marvel. And it sure is cute.

After reading about the experiences of first-generation AIBO owners, we're more than impressed by what people in lab coats have accomplished in the field of artificial intelligence. We wanted an AIBO. Bad.

But how would the dogs react to having an shiny black or grey AIBO join our pack? Mac, who once tried to drown a battery-operated toy dog that barked and did back flips, would probably roll his eyes in disgust and retire to his bed. We figure Maynard would either try to teach it new tricks--or steal its pink ball. And Harry...Harry would undoubtedly invent all new rules for robot soccer and find ways to make AIBO's eyes nervously flash red and green while trying to upstage him in clicker-training sessions.

Would this be a suitable environment in which to raise a robot dog?

We're not sure. But we'd like to give it try. AIBO couldn't take his walks with the other dogs--his robot body couldn't tolerate the dust, dirt and water along the path down to the beach where our big dogs like to go--so we'd have to adjust our daily routines to entertain an indoor dog. Maynard and Harry would have to curtail their roughhousing around the dogbot--AIBO probably couldn't survive many body slams into the wall, a move that our younger boys are famous for. At the same time, AIBO might learn how to be a better robot dog by hanging out with three boisterous Labs. We even have visions of little AIBO helping around the house and picking up after his step-siblings... putting their stuffed animals away in the toy box, cleaning up all the cardboard bits from boxes shredded by industrious canine teeth, depositing dog hair in the trash...

As we debate whether we'd be responsible AIBO parents, I can't help but wonder how many of the 10,000 units Sony is shipping this holiday season will become victims of Christmas robo-puppy syndrome? Left forgotten on their charging stations after the initial excitement is over -- or put up for auction on EBAY. The possibility of AIBO abandonment might wind up being an unexpected benefit of this AI-creature. Wouldn't it be a social breakthrough if, during the next decade, anyone who wanted to adopt a real dog, had to pass an AIBO test first, to ensure that they could handle the commitment and provide the care, love and attention that a living animal requires?

Perhaps it's just as well the chances of our names being selected in Sony's lottery are slim. We don't need another dog. Keeping up with the demands of three big dogs is about all we can handle. And with our luck,our AIBO would want to sleep on the bed, crowding out what little space we humans have left.

Author's Note: Looks like this will the first in a series of articles about the AIBO. Shortly after I wrote this, our CFO received a congratulatory note from Sony Corporation that said he was selected in the Sony AIBO adoption. So Two Dog Press will be celebrating the holidays with a little robot dog, who will be named Jazzbo.

Copyright © 1999 by Karen Dowell.

Karen Dowell is the award-winning author of Cooking with Dogs. Her Labrador Retrievers are a constant source of inspiration and dog hair.

Jazzbo is named after Al  "Jazzbeaux" Collins, one of jazz radio's best-loved personalities. We thought his moniker perfectly combined elements of jazz and robotics--especially when we altered the spelling a bit. We plan to download big band and trumpet sounds into little Jazzbo, so he can sing to us in style when he's happy.

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