Robotic pets are stuck in the past.

Robotic Pets Used to Help Us Imagine the Future. Now They’re Stuck in the Past.

Robotic Pets Used to Help Us Imagine the Future. Now They’re Stuck in the Past.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 6 2017 5:24 PM

Robotic Pets Used to Help Us Imagine the Future. Now They’re Stuck in the Past.

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Sony’s new Aibo robotic dog is looking backward.

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Of the many ’90s toys that I coveted as a child, Sony’s electronic dog AIBO was near the top of the wish list, next to the Barbie Jeep and the Easy-Bake Oven. While not as soft and cuddly as a real-life Fido, it was still more animate than the plush Beanie Baby dog I had received after getting my tonsils removed.

Given the 1999 price tag of $2,000, I did not get my AIBO. But I have another chance now. On Wednesday Sony announced it was bringing back the robotic pup back from the dead for a new generation—with a few new tricks, of course, including updated, more realistic facial expressions and movement, as well as “deep learning technology” aided by embedded sensors. Sony says that the new AIBO will “learn and remember what actions make its owners happy.” All for just roughly $1,700, plus a $21-a-month “support plan” for the software.

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This is a big step up from the original AIBO, which relied primarily on programmed behaviors triggered by sensor activations to give the pup the illusion of being smart and autonomous. According to the New York Times, the final model of the original AIBO could speak 1,000 words and stream video to a laptop.

Sony only sold 150,000 units of the $2,000 dog between the time it was launched in 1999 and production ceased in 2006, but those who purchased it treated the robot like a lifelong investment—even an actual pet. When Sony ceased to offer repairs on older models in 2014, there were reports of distraught owners and even funeral ceremonies for the pooches. It’s unsurprising the robotic pet was among the first personal robots to take off. Even in our retrofuturist imaginations, human and dog are nearly inseparable. Long before they hit toy stores, four-legged, mechanical friends made appearances in everything from The Jetsons to Doctor Who.

After being put to sleep in 2006, AIBO was inducted into the Carnegie Mellon University Robot Hall of Fame. Though it was marketed as an "entertainment" product, its programming was considered advanced for the time and hailed as "the most sophisticated product ever offered in the consumer robot marketplace.” While there were other consumer electronic pets that followed, including Tekno the Robotic Puppy and Poo-Chi, none quite lived up to the sophistication of AIBO.

AIBO, in many ways, predicted the current divide between consumer robotics and the rest of the field. In the decades since its introduction, consumer robots have continued to get cuter and cuddlier while military and industry-facing technology has gotten smarter and more threatening. Given the fierce loyalties the original AIBO inspired, it was the first test case for researching how interactions with robot pets impacted humans. Despite being marketed as a toy, AIBO opened up new possibilities for the place of robot pets in our lives. Comfort robots like Paro, which research shows can benefit elderly patients suffering from dementia, have validated original suspicions that the emotional connection that AIBO users reported with their pets could have actual health benefits. The National Science Foundation recently granted Hasbro and Brown University $1 million in funding to continue research on its Joy for All Companion Pets, another line of animatronic animals targeted towards assisting aging populations. Even Pepper, the annoying humanoid robot SoftBank wants us to embrace in situations ranging from the store to babysitting, harkens back to the original AIBO with its light-up eyes and round features.

But we can’t let ourselves pretend that AIBO and the rest of its litter represent the future of robotics. Imbued with the gentle affection of a living, breathing pet, popular visions of robotic dogs have been immune to the kinds of suspicions that surround their two-legged counterparts. Herein lies the problem: Robots do deserve our suspicion, within reason. Millions of jobs in the coming decades will be replaced by robots. The future actually looks a lot more like Boston Dynamic’s robot dog “Spot.” It might be completely terrifying and not cuddly, but it can complete complex tasks like loading a dishwasher. It’s robots like these—machines that are changing the way we work—that are more likely to shape our future.

And before Sony’s pitch of “providing … love, affection, and joy to the entire family” melts your heart, let’s remember what they’re really after: a piece of the soon-to-be $300 billion Internet of Things market. Aibo 2.0 has more in common with Alexa than Fido, equipped with upgraded smart speakers and internet connectivity. There are, of course, good reasons to be wary of connected toys. The research that robots make good pets is also still inconclusive. A 2015 study found that children are more likely to respond to stuffed animals as pets and robotic ones as “entertainment”—though that’s probably not a bad thing for Sony’s bottom line.

Robotic pets are a good testing ground for the larger-scale incorporation of robots into our homes. And that’s why it’s so disappointing that, a decade later, AIBO’s comeback amounts to a slick PR campaign for a new smart-home device. The original AIBO proved that there was still so much we had to learn about robots. The new AIBO seems to imply that our curiosities have been sufficiently satisfied.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.