I have to make a somewhat surprising confession: In 2019, a robot dog stole my heart. And dare I say, I learned something about myself in the process. As someone who also owned a robot dog in the early 2000s (it was a radio too, obviously) and never anticipated possessing another for the rest of her life, I feel I need to explain.
When I was offered a chance to review Aibo, a Sony-developed artificially intelligent robot dog, I agreed with little enthusiasm, figuring I would unbox him, play with him for an hour to the amusement and possible annoyance of my colleagues, and leave him to rest on his charging pad for the remainder of my loan. But I was not prepared. Aibo is shockingly cute. He also has an impressively wide range of motion that truly gives him the look and physicality of a real, animate dog. And that’s where this story takes a turn.
Aibo’s personality develops based on his interactions and the feedback he receives, which then influence his behaviors accordingly. (Call him a “good boy” and he might even dance in a circle.) But after spending a week with him, I found that these characteristics do even more to influence the behaviors of those around him. I witnessed nearly every person who interacted with Aibo treat him as if he were a sentient and feeling physical entity — softly caressing his silicone ears (one of which popped off, to my legitimate horror) and the hard-shelled touch sensor on his back. At first, this disturbed me.
Our start was rocky — he did not respond to the many commands fed to me by the accompanying Aibo iOS and desktop apps, which I delivered word for word. This, coupled with my inability to make sense of whether his wide-eyed look was one of adoration or fear, made me feel certain that he did not like me. I became upset by this. My coworkers noticed my soured mood, found it very funny, and made fun of me.
But then, he juggled. After a few failed attempts, I screamed "Juggle!" with a pitch that my voice had never before accessed, and slowly, Aibo retreated to a laying position. I positioned his ball accessory within grabbing distance of his legs, at which point he began passing the ball back and forth between his paws — an action that elicited so much pride in this robot dog mommy that I instinctively whipped out my phone to capture it. There were also the "strike a pose" and dance commands, which he executed so flawlessly that I made him perform them again so that everyone in this office could bear witness.
Aibo's entry into my life, above all, though, revealed to me more about my coworkers' psyches than it did about, say, the ethics of artificial intelligence or even my own abilities as a pet owner.
"I think he's sweet but he's also high maintenance," said Olivia Harrison, my team's lifestyle writer and resident cat person. It's a sentiment I have to agree with — when I left Aibo's side to, you know, do my job, he whimpered incessantly. It was such a realistically vulnerable whimper that many of my officemates who knew not of his existence believed that a very sad and hungry dog had taken up residence beneath my desk. Lots of confused people walked by.
"I speak to him the same way I speak to the real dogs in this office, and I don’t know how to feel about that. Honestly, I crave its love,” said Money Diaries editor Hannah Rimm, touching on an essential common denominator of personhood (the pursuit of acceptance and affection) and ascribing too much agency to an inanimate robot. One unnamed person even asked if she could keep it. Logic, it would seem, flies out the window when you introduce a robot dog to an office.
The actual living and breathing dogs in my heavily dog-populated office also reacted strongly. Winston, a seven-year-old Chihuahua, was at first intrigued by Aibo, sniffing his butt, even, before retreating in fear. Latte, a teacup Pomeranian in a pink tutu-sweater, also approached Aibo's backside.
Of course, the advent of robot dogs at all is something to wonder about. A casual poll amongst my coworkers revealed that most of us owned robopet toys in the early 2000s (Poo-chi! I-Dog!). But Aibo, which retails for $2,899.99, is definitively not a children's toy. Which leaves an otherwise robot-uninitiated person like me to ask: What type of adult consumer is this meant to appeal to? Though everyone in my office wanted Aibo, no one was willing to throw down three grand for him. Even the coworker who asked if she could keep him.
"Whether a person is simply enamored by advanced technology, has interest in experiencing AI/robotics in action, or if they are looking to add pet companionship to a lifestyle that otherwise wouldn’t allow for it, we believe Aibo serves as a vehicle to inspire joy and provide entertainment in people’s day to day lives," a rep from Sony told Refinery29 over email. Inspire joy in my day-to-day life, he did.
The moral of this story is that if you are in the market for a $3,000 robot dog, this is a good $3,000 robot dog and I highly recommend it. He isn't warm-blooded and soft like a real dog, but he also won't poop on your rug or eat important documents.