We told you about the ZenCrate, a Wi-Fi-enabled dog house that promises to relieve your pooch’s anxiety during even the fiercest of storms with calming noises and vibration tamping. And for those wayward pets who like to escape their owner’s leash, we sampled the Kyon Pet Tracker, a fancy collar with a GPS tracker and barking silencer, plus a smartphone app for the human. And, of course, Bill loves his Litter-Robot III, a self-cleaning smart litter box for his kitties.
This pet tech is wonderful — if you actually have a pet, that is. What about the busy professional who lives in an urban environment, works irregular hours and travels a lot? Or an elderly person who physically can’t take care of a pet? Or even someone who has a pet allergy? Sony’s Aibo robotic dog — which we saw at the last Consumer Electronics Show — is the perfect “companion” for the busy urbanite who wants to bond with a pet without all the, uh, pet mess.
MAN’S BEST FRIEND?
Up close, our first impression of Aibo was that it looks like a toy. But once it becomes animated and begins to walk, run, wag its tail, look around, roll over, etc., you start reacting as you would with a real pup. This “new” robotic dog is actually just a reboot of a model that Sony introduced back in 1999. This new Aibo is a huge improvement, but it remains to be seen if it will be a hit with its $2,000 price tag and $25 a month maintenance fee. (Nobody said robotic pets would be any cheaper than real ones!)
Sony is clearly hoping its new robot dog will demonstrate its commitment to being a major player in robotics and artificial intelligence. This technology gives Aibo its lifelike characteristics. Thanks to enhanced robotics, Aibo’s movement is more like that of a real dog; it interacts and “grows” due to AI technology that is continually learning and updating the robot’s database of knowledge (hence the monthly fee for maintaining your dog’s intelligence in the cloud).
For example, Sony says Aibo can learn to recognize the humans who interact with it the most. Aibo has embedded cameras that enable it to navigate around obstacles in your home and to recognize familiar faces. Just like a real dog, Aibo is responsive and can grow “tired” after lots of activity. This “tiredness” is actually caused by a depleted battery after about two hours of play. It navigates its way back to its charging base when it starts feeling lethargic and, after “resting” for a while, is ready to play again.
We saw a demo at CES that involved two robotic dogs, and the way they interacted and played together mimicked real dogs pretty convincingly. But, of course, they can be unpredictable just like real pets, such as when one of the Aibos inexplicably ignored a command from its human master. Was that a misfire or just a prank that a real pet might pull? We’re not sure, but we think it was an error due to the spotty internet on the crowded exhibit floor.
A GLIMPSE INTO OUR FUTURE
While the idea of Aibo as a pet replacement seems far-fetched and expensive, we believe this revamped Sony project represents a new era of robotics in the world of tech gadgetry. Aibo demonstrates that it is possible to provide a rewarding companionship experience using robotics and AI. We expect to see many more robots in the near future that can be used to help entertain and teach children or provide basic care and companionship for the elderly. With any luck, we’ll be able to retire with an army of robot pets and caregivers who can provide us with company and comfort well into our golden years.