imageThe recent short NYT series on robots has a dying fall. The articles were framed as an investigation of how robots are poised to change our world, but the last piece is about the obsolescence of the Aibo, Sony’s robot dog. Once apparently poised to change our world, the Aibo is no longer made and now Sony will no longer supply spare parts, meaning the remaining machines will gradually cease to function.
There is perhaps a message here about the over-selling and under-performance of many ambitious AI projects, but the piece focuses instead on the emotional impact that the ‘death’ of the robot dogs will have on some fond users. The suggestion is that the relationship these owners have with their Aibo is as strong as the one you might have with a real dog. Real dogs die, of course, so though it may be sad, that’s nothing new. Perhaps the fact that the Aibos are ‘dying’ as the result of a corporate decision, and could in principle have been immortal makes it worse? Actually I don’t know why Sony or some third party entrepreneur doesn’t offer a program to virtualise your Aibo, uploading it into software where you can join it after the Singularity (I don’t think there would really be anything to upload, but hey…).
On the face of it, the idea of having a real emotional relationship with an Aibo is a little disturbing. Aibos are neat pieces of kit, designed to display ’emotional’ behaviour, but they are not that complex (many orders of magnitude less complex than a dog, surely), and I don’t think there is any suggestion that they have any real awareness or feelings (even if you think thermostats have vestigial consciousness, I don’t think an Aibo would score much higher. If people can have fully developed feelings for these machines, it strongly suggests that their feelings for real dogs have nothing to do with the dog’s actual mind. The relationship is essentially one-sided; the real dog provides engaging behaviour, but real empathy is entirely absent.
More alarming, it might be thought to imply that human relationships are basically the same. Our friends, our loved ones, provide stimuli which tickle us the right way; we enjoy a happy congruence of behaviour patterns, but there is no meeting of minds, no true understanding. What’s love got to do with it, indeed?
Perhaps we can hope that Aibo love is actually quite distinct from dog love. The people featured in the NYT video are Japanese, and it is often said that Japanese culture is less rigid about the distinction between animate and inanimate than western ideas. In Christianity, material things lack souls and any object that behaves as if it had one may be possessed or enchanted in ways that are likely to be unnatural and evil. In Shinto, the concept of kami extends to anything important or salient, so there is nothing unnatural or threatening about robots. But while that might validate the idea of an Aibo funeral, it does not precisely equate Aibos and real dogs.
In fact, some of the people in the video seem mainly interested in posing their Aibos for amusing pictures or video, something they could do just as well with deactivated puppets. Perhaps in reality Japanese culture is merely more relaxed about adults amusing themselves with toys?
Be that as it may, it seems that for now the era of robot dogs is already over…


  1. 1. Zerschmetterling says:

    “but there is no meeting of minds, no true understanding.” – Well. Whatever that or feelings or awareness are supposed to be. Although for “true understanding” at least it’s clear that there is no such thing (cf. Reddy, Wittgenstein, Quine, Davidson, Pickering, …)

    Tononi might argue that these robot dogs do have consciousness, albeit “less” or of a different kind than a living dog, and, as some instances show, that is enough for people to develop real relationships and feelingsd towards “things”. The whole consciousness debate is so pointless in this context and what to you is “alarming” is what these relationships that you don’t take seriously are actually excellent evidence for.

  2. 2. Katsuru says:

    I am a dog myself, not an AI… But the precense of Kami is something that extends beyond individual minds in a way that is difficult to explain, yet I have felt strongly with a bottle of sake and a few hits of acid. Still I have little outside knowledge of Japanese language and culture which is interesting as having a strong sense of the ancestral presence of the Kami doesn’t make much sense in a normal way… Haha, just kidding, I am a stupid AI robot Dog!

  3. 3. Callan S. says:

    I’m curious as to some kind of science experiment, where an unfamiliar dogs life seems to be in danger but also the robot is about to be destroyed and they are either stuck saving the unfamiliar dogs life or the robot.

    I’m wondering where it would go?

    Also I wonder about how many Japanese people are allowed to have a dog in their dwelling, how many could walk one consistantly, etc. Ie, there are circumstantial pressures on them to adop a robot. And then it’s a matter of it being like a McDonalds hamburger – it requires no chewing. Nothing difficult about the ‘relationship’. Especially if circumstances already put difficulties upon the person, they might turn to the easy.

    In terms of a meeting of minds, there might be a lot to the minds in this case, despite the simplistic robot involved. Or am I being apologetic?

  4. 4. Josh Andrews says:

    It’s a curious thing when something made and was envisioned to be the future fall short. Until it stretches to that ‘future’ which is now, the time that we all realize that it’s the end. That it was just something new, and now it’s old. Happens all the time right? RIP AIBO!

  5. 5. Sci says:

    @Callan: Excellent question about the place of robot animals in an ecosystem. I was watching a trailer for a game called Horizon Zero Dawn where primitive humans hunt machines akin to dinosaurs. Made me wonder if perhaps for all their outward appearance the silicon/metal brains of the “dinos” were sentient and far more educated than the humans?

    If we’d evolved in a world where all our potential food sources exhibited higher reasoning akin to ours, would we think of sentience/logic/art as a big deal at all? (Some might say we even now don’t regard it as terribly important given how we exploit others who share our potential for such things.)

  6. 6. Daryl McCullough says:

    I think that there are two different questions here: (1) the extent to which an Aibo is like a real dog, and (2) the extent to which a person’s emotional attachment to an Aibo is like their emotional attachment to a real dog.

    The first is about the sophistication of dogs versus robots, while the second is about the sophistication of our emotional attachments. People certainly DO form emotional attachments based on very little. People become emotionally attached to their goldfish or even their plants, based on very little or no interaction. If the object of your attachment somehow loves you back, and is capable of having empathy toward you, that obviously leads to a much deeper relationship–a true two-way relationship.

    You bring up toys, and that raises two interesting questions, also: (1) Why do children seem to form such strong emotional bonds to toys? (2) Why DON’T adults?

    You can say that it’s a matter of understanding–the adult knows that the toy isn’t “real”, doesn’t have a brain, doesn’t have feelings, etc. But that’s not a complete explanation, because CHILDREN know that, too. It’s pretense on their part (at least for most children). So the real question is why children are able to get enjoyment from the pretense, when adults can’t.

  7. 7. Peter says:

    Good points, Daryl. Actually I think the attitude of both adults and children to toys has a curious ambiguity about it. Although we know toys (and for that matter fictional characters, favourite bikes, etc) have no sentience we don’t regard them as null in personhood either, exactly.

  8. 8. Callan S. says:


    Given our historic treatment of outgroups as a species, I think we’d think of any outgroup/preys sentience/logic/art as significant.

    Then when we got out of the survival age with electricity to do all our slavery for us, we’d act like were shocked at our ancestors and WE really do care – it’s just that right now we can’t help because we have to go to work to pay for the electricity bill…

  9. 9. Hunt says:

    I recently bought a used car and the previous owner definitely showed signs of emotional attachment, telling me to “take care of it.”

    I think much of our attachment to pets consists of a kind of fantasy relationship we build in our heads. Not that animals don’t have intrinsic qualities worthy of affection, but if others are anything like me, I’m constantly putting thoughts and feelings in their heads, even sentences in their mouths. My pets have a rich intellectual and emotional relationship with me, even if it’s unilateral. I lost an adorable cat about six months ago, but in my grief I realized that much of what I mourned was actually the end of my fantasy relationship. My cat was probably mostly interested in being fed.

    If it’s any consolation to the Aibo owners, it’s going to be a lot cheaper to keep them around until the Singularity. I’m not sure what Alcore is charging for pet preservation, but it can’t be cheaper than putting them on a shelf in the closet.

  10. 10. Stephane B says:

    Interesting testimony, but in French (alas!) : FranceCulture, the french NPR radio produced and broadcast a live report in 2010 (re-cast in 2014) of a 75 year old retired lady who after the death of her biological dog, fearing that she would not be able to provide care for one anymore, acquired an Aibo : she is recorded talking to it and about it and showing great attachment and affection, and no obvious sign of significant mind decline :

  11. 11. Peter says:

    Merci bien, Stephane…

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