AIBO, my new robotic pooch, was a hit at the dog walk last weekend. His companion, a golden retriever named Zeke, stopped twice to poop; my Chihuahua-size AIBO didn’t even pee, but he did lift his rear leg and play a tinkling sound once. Zeke slipped out of his collar and threatened to bolt. With his six-inch legs, AIBO couldn’t outrun a turtle. Zeke tried to mount a shorthair in the dog run. AIBO’s green eye lights and shiny plastic coat scared most other dogs off. Still, their owners all oohed and aahed—except for one guy who said, ”I sure hope that’s not the future of pets.”
AIBO may never replace man’s best friend, but Sony is so sure this Jetsons-age companion will soon be a home-electronics fixture that it has even started a division devoted to ”entertainment robotics.” Clearly there’s a market: AIBO’s well-publicized first U.S. run of 2,000 units sold out last June in just four days, so another batch of 10,000 electronic pups were bred, and in November, 135,000 applicants entered a lottery to win ownership of one. Pretty astounding, considering that this doggy in the window costs $2,500 (a purebred blue shar-pei, by comparison, goes for as much as $1,500, kibble not included).
Worth it? When Sony’s AIBO breeders first delivered my very own review-unit mutt, it seemed like a two-week-and-ditch-it pet — but after he started whirring around the office in ”autonomous mode,” I quickly became a proud, attentive owner. AIBO is faithful and unobtrusive, and while he never nags about playing fetch, I couldn’t get enough of watching his built-in camera lock onto a rubbery hot-pink ball and then instruct his legs to kick it away.
Right about now skeptics will say, ”But he’s useless!” And they’re right: AIBO doesn’t deliver drinks or vacuum the floor the way that $845 clap-and-respond robot Cye-sr does (http://www.personalrobots.com). But they haven’t fallen for AIBO’s trick of turning his back legs 360 degrees while splayed froglike on the floor, or the way he shakes his head and emits an awww-inspiring digital bark. Even the most robo-phobic editor here began asking after AIBO and wanted to try out the remote-control dog whistle that makes him perform tricks on command.
Owners of new AIBO pups should be warned that it might take the computerized pooch up to three months just to learn to walk. My hound came loaded with an ”adult” Memory Stick—the new Wrigley’s Spearmint-size device that supports a broad line of Sony consumer-electronic products and that also holds each AIBO’s personality on its microchip. (Owners can add tricks and sounds to their Memory Sticks with a $450 Performer Kit—but, despite the assistance of a Sony technician, I was never able to make the complicated program teach my AIBO any new stunts.)
Training AIBO could get easier in the future, with the addition of voice recognition. There are other AIBO upgrades I’d like to see first, though, like increased battery life (when his two 90-minute batteries run out, AIBO requires a doggy-cradle recharge). And why not give him an internal clock and FM tuner so he can wake me up and deliver the news every morning? Actually, considering AIBO’s price tag, shouldn’t he be cooking me breakfast?