When the Sony Aibo launched in May, 1999, it quickly became one of the most desirable gadgets on the planet.
Sony Aibo were the future. Well, at least they seemed to be when they came out. The adorable chrome puppies were suddenly everywhere, well at least on TV and in movies, as they were somewhat on the expensive side.
It’s been over a decade since Sony announced that they were ceasing production and updates for the pricey puppies, and the results were astonishing. People actively grieved for the loss of their electronic pets, with some even holding funerals for them. It sparked a very 21st Century debate about the connections which we are forming with our machines. In 2015, an article named ‘To mourn a robotic dog is to be truly human‘ by Andrew Brown ran in The Guardian.
“It is true that an Aibo has a behavioural repertoire more limited than that of even the most stupid dog. But plenty of living things have even less of a range of behaviour. An Aibo does not have any physical transactions with the universe. It does not feed itself or reproduce. It is possible to imagine a robot doing all of these things, or their analogues, but Aibos do not.
They do, however, die. They are, as the funerals make quite clear, entirely loved by some of their owners at least. In this their nearest analogue is actually the Velveteen Rabbit in a wonderful children’s classic – or the altogether grimmer, darker and more realistic version of Russell Hoban’s Mouse and His Child. Both stories deal with children’s toys who come alive because they are loved and which can properly be mourned as a result.
The funerals of the robot dogs are in this sense a perfectly religious act. The priests don’t promise that the Aibos will go to heaven, any more than they do for real pets. But the ceremonial gives shape and habitation to a grief. We’re seldom more completely human than when we mourn things that could never mourn us in return.”
The ramifications of this collective grief have clearly manifested themselves in the subconscious of Sony’s top executives, because now the Aibo is back. It also transpires that the original models weren’t discontinued on a whim:
“It was a difficult decision to stop the project in 2006, but we continued development in AI and robotics,” said Sony chief executive Kazuo Hirai. “I asked our engineers a year and a half ago to develop Aibo because I strongly believe robots capable of building loving relationships with people help realise Sony’s mission (to inspire).”
They also come with an adorable new design:
It is claimed that the new Aibo “can form an emotional bond with members of the household while providing them with love, affection, and the joy of nurturing and raising a companion.” Improved AI and app technology is sure to have created an entirely new experience with the Aibo.
One can be yours if you have a spare few thousand dollars at hand, and are lucky enough to snap one up when they are released in January 2018.
Here’s some of the Japanese marketing that’s been used so far.
And here is some footage from the launch itself.