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Robot Dogs Treated Like Part of the Family in Japan

Japanese owners of the Aibo brand of robot dogs revere their electric pets so much they hold funerals for them when they break down.

Miwa Suzuki of the AFP wire service published an interesting piece this week that begins with a visceral description of a Japanese Buddhist funeral. Incense. Cold air. Chanting priests. These are the sensory elements that mark the memorialization of souls recently departed. Except this funeral attended by Suzuki isn’t what you’d think. That’s because no souls have actually departed — that is, unless you believe this thing has a soul. That’s the case with several owners of the Aibo brand of robot dogs first introduced in 1999. In Japan, these things are serious business:

“Those being honored are robot dogs, lined up on the altar, each wearing a tag to show where they came from and which family they belonged to. The devices are ‘AIBOs,’ the world’s first home-use entertainment robot equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and capable of developing its own personality. … Sony rolled out the first-generation AIBO in June 1999, with the initial batch of 3,000 selling out in just 20 minutes, despite the hefty 250,000-yen (more than $2,000) price tag. Over the following years, more than 150,000 units were sold. … By 2006, Sony was in trouble; its business model was broken and it was facing fierce competition from rivals in all fields. The AIBO, an expensive and somewhat frivolous luxury, had to go. The company kept its ‘AIBO Clinic’ open until March 2014, but then — politely — told dedicated and loving owners that they were on their own.”

As you can probably imagine, keeping your robodog in working order is difficult when robodog tech support becomes no more. And while certain companies have sprouted up that offer help with repairs, cyber-veterinary care isn’t exactly simple:

“The problem is that repairs can take weeks or even months because of a shortage of spare parts. Dozens of AIBOs are now ‘hospitalized,’ with more than 180 on the waiting list. The only source of genuine parts are ‘dead’ robots, who become donors for organ transplantation, but only once the proper respects have been paid.”

The takeaway here is that some people treat their robot companions as if they do have souls, or at least like they’re a live member of the family. As Kelsey D. Atherton writes at Popular Science, robot pets are very popular in Japan and are only going to become more so as AI technology improves. If we think of Japan as a petri dish in which the feasibility of “man’s robo-best friend” is being grown and tested, the initial samples show that robopets are fully capable of earning the affection of owners glad not to have to clean up after them. It will be interesting to see where the robopet industry moves next.


Photo credit: RATOCA / Shutterstock


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