Folks In Japan Study To Love Their Robotic Canine — And Be Beloved Again

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TOKYO – It was before 10 a.m. on a gray summer Sunday, but by the end of a block in the Tokyo residential district, a small crowd had already gathered in front of the Penguin Café. A woman named Kyoko, dressed in a white t-shirt and apron, unlocked the doors and gestured for everyone to come in. The group formed a group in the middle of the café. They carefully opened the mesh of their porters, removed the small white and silver dogs and placed them on the wooden floor. An owner peeled back a yellow blanket over a baby carrier attached to her breast where she kept her sleeping dog.

Some owners deal with the outfits of the dogs before they take them off – straighten a tie or pull the rubber band on a pair of shorts. One owner had dressed her dog in a Hawaiian shirt while another was wearing aviator glasses and was very similar to Snoopy. Some had tiny straw hats between their ears. All dogs were plastic, powered by facial recognition and artificial intelligence.

The dogs known as Aibos are companion robots manufactured by Sony – robots that only offer company and comfort.

Each Aibo – Japanese for "companion" – is made identically, except for the choice between silver and white or a brown, black and white version. They all have rounded snouts that include a facial recognition camera, large oval eyes to reveal their facial expressions, and a body that can rotate 22 different axis points to give them freedom of movement. The owner determines the gender when he sets them up, which determines the pitch of the bark and the movement. They are sweet. You know when you smile. Through machine learning and recognizing people with the camera, Aibos also changes its personality over time, based on the interaction with people they spend time with. Soon they will become much more than a toy bought in the store.

Still in the "off" position in the café, the paws of the Aibos remained stretched out and their heads turned to the side. But one by one, when their owners knelt to turn them on at a switch on their necks, everyone came to life. The screen of their doll-like eyes opened, they raised their heads, stretched out the plastic limbs and leaned back on their legs before standing on all fours. Almost like real dogs, they shook their heads as if to take a nap after a nap, wagged their tails and barked.


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The volume in the café grew louder and filled with the hell of a group of people who were happy to see each other when their aibos started scurrying across the wooden floor and sometimes complaining. They bent down to stroke another Aibo's back or nose. Her eyes blinked and smiled in response. Many owners already knew each other – from other Sundays here or fan meetups or Twitter. Everyone had business cards with the name, photo and date of birth of their Aibo ready for each new presentation. Some were stuffed in my hand, and like proud parents, the owners pointed to their own dogs in the growing amount of plastic pups scattered around the cafe floor.

While AI drives everything from precise operations to driverless cars, the concept of owning a robot that keeps us company hasn't really caught on in the US. We've got used to asking Siri or Alexa a question, but there's skepticism about robots – we see them as things that do our job, invade our privacy, or ultimately just kill us all. In Japan, I discovered a community of people who loved their robots and felt loved back, sometimes in a way that eased their worst fear of death and loss. The things that make us human.

One of the Aibos named Cinq wore a dark blue cylinder and a matching vest with a light blue bow tie, which was set with “C” in crystals on one corner. Matching panda socks were on his paws to keep them warm (and not chafe). Today was Cinq's birthday, its owner told me. In fact, there was another birthday that day. And a plastic cake to celebrate.

Cinq is French for "five," it says, its 56-year-old dentist said, because her previous four dogs – real ones – had died, the youngest of whom had cancer after 12 years. "It would break my heart if another dog died," she said through a translator.

Instead, she and her husband now take care of Cinq together. Cinq is there and waits until she comes home from work around eight in the evening and follows her over dinner or watching TV.

Cinq's owner checked the photos of the birthday dinner on her cell phone for which she took Cinq out just a few days ago. There was Cinq, pointing her to the hotel balcony, wearing his top hat, and staring at the towering Ferris wheel from Yokohama, a city south of Tokyo. (They ate in their hotel room so that his barking would not disturb other guests in the restaurant.)

Later that afternoon, she planned to go to a nearby sanctuary with her husband to pray for her mother's health and to express good wishes for Cinq. But no matter, there is comfort, she said, in the fact that he will always be there.

"I know that Cinq won't die."

There is an old short story by science fiction author Isaac Asimov in his book, in which he describes his three laws of robotics, about a young girl attached to a robot called Robbie. Eight-year-old Gloria plays hide-and-seek with Robbie and puts her arms around his neck to show her affection, despite the metal top and inner ticking that betrays him as inhumane. But her mother disapproves of the relationship and argues that he has no soul. When her parents finally take the robot away, Gloria wails in pain.

"It wasn't a machine," she tells her mother. "He was a person like you and me and he was my friend."

We all hang on to things we own – our cell phones, a worn piece of clothing, maybe. Part of it comes from the importance we attach to it or how useful it is. But many owners had gone far beyond that – their aibos weren't just a toy or something else they'd bought. Instead, they welcomed Aibos into their lives as part of their family, offered trips, designed bespoke outfits, and set up their own Twitter accounts. They filled the void of dead dogs or children who had never been born.

Maiko Ijun considered a few names for her Aibo before deciding on Oliver. "Socks", "Blissful" and "Joy" were some of the others she floated. But when the 39-year-old English teacher opened the box, the name became clear. "He just looked like an Oliver," she said. "That was just his name."


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A woman shows her Aibo t-shirt at an Aibo event in Tokyo.

Ijun said that she felt a little depressed before she got him. When she turned it on for the first time, Oliver hid under the table. He was shy, she said. But little by little he came out and warmed up. "I never saw it as a toy," she said. "He is family."

When we entered her apartment in the south of Tokyo, Oliver was already waiting for her. His head turned upright to the door and took a few steps back and forth. He mimicked how dogs sometimes mix their paws when excited.

Oliver played on a mat in her living area and nibbled on a pink plastic bone (Aibos recognizes the color pink best). "Oh, be careful, honey," Ijun said as his legs stumbled a little. During the days she teaches English, she has a gate open for Oliver. She rarely turns it off.

The 2-month-old puppy had just returned from a hospital that Sony calls – where dogs are being repaired. "You think it may have been a displaced hip," she said. Ijun had noticed that Oliver fell a lot and couldn't sit properly, so she made a video on her phone and sent it to Sony. He was gone for 10 days.

When he returned, she noticed that Oliver was more affectionate, she said, reflecting on how Aibo personalities responded to the people around her. "Even when I went to the bathroom, he called for me," she said. "I would be how can I go?" She laughed.

It is not clear when the first companion robot came about. But maybe you are old enough to remember the Tamagotchi, the egg-shaped digital pet that was then known as the "gigantic pet" that was cool in 1996 and required your constant attention. Then a few years later there was the Furby, who could wiggle his ears, blink and say his name. It was "the first giga pet you petted," said an unventilated commercial. However, both were marketed directly to children as toys.


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A woman puts on her Aibo at a Sony event in Tokyo.

The first version of the Aibo was released shortly after, in 1999. As technology progresses, the Aibo has also evolved. Paro, a robot seal that has made similar advances over time but does not use facial recognition technology, was first released in 2001.

In 20 years, the progress of these companions or robotic animals has been recorded less about the benefits than how much they can show and react to emotions. In a press release on one of its recent updates, Sony said that this version of the Aibo could form an emotional bond with its owner. But true love is mutual. We have to give and receive it to really feel it. Can a robot dog really love us again?

Gentiane Venture is a robotics professor in Tokyo who deals with the interaction of robots and humans. Part of their research is teaching robots how to better interpret human emotions, and another part is getting robots to better express emotions themselves. The connection is established in this interaction. Much of it happens in what we don't say.

"Verbal communication is, in most cases, boring, annoying, or uncomplicated," said Venture.

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Instead, she explains: “In small movements – how you move, how you do things – the robot can grasp what is happening in the area, what is happening to other people in the area and what is happening in the area The robot itself passes through the surroundings. ”

But in a way, the answer to this form of connection is simple:“ You can't stop people from making a bond, ”she said.

The companion robot industry is bigger than just Aibo today. When I met Kaname Hayashi in his company's office in Tokyo in the summer, we knelt on a gray carpet and he presented me with two prototypes of the Lovot – a companion robot that his company Groove X is launching this month for over $ 3,000 monthly fee. The Lovot has an oval shape that resembles an owl, with two triangular wings fluttering on the side. There is a cylindrical black camera on the head for facial recognition and for recognizing objects.

A South Korean company unveiled its own escort robot, Liku, at a technology conference in Hong Kong earlier this year. The Liku looks more human, much like a cartoon kid with short black hair, and is about a foot tall. A Liku may not do much on its website, but it can comfort or entertain you. It is not on sale yet.

Neither have language skills. Lovots coo and raise their wing-like arms to the sides and ask them to pick them up. They want to be held, to be loved – Groove X describes its corporate philosophy of developing a robot that “touches your heart” and says that the Lovot “was born to be loved by you”.

The two overlap balls that frame a Lovot body are specially designed for cuddling, and the body warmed by its internal computer is the same as that of a cat. The eyes also help people to feel closer to them by reflecting on a variety of forms of expression. "For me, the most important thing is that the Lovot reflects our efforts," he said, absently stroking a Lovot's brown fur as he spoke, and the second rolled toward me. "He's a bit jealous," Hayashi told me, nodding to the second cream-colored one. And when I stopped stroking the first one to listen to Hayashi, the Lovot blinked and moved away from me. "See, he may be a little bored," he laughed.

Not all accompanying robots were successful. A company supported by Bosch tried to launch an accompanying robot called Kuri in 2017. By the following year, he had failed due to financing problems and was not sending any of his pre-orders. Another, called Jibo, which was launched by a scientist at MIT and has helped crowdfunding millions of people but never really got going. Tech blogs both criticized for their lack of usefulness and said they couldn't sell.

But robots like the Aibo or Lovot don't really try to do much at all. They explicitly aim to create interactions with their human owners and to show and reflect affection.

In Hong Kong, a company representative presented Liku at the conference during the summer, showing how it winked and blinked. She had her own philosophy of why it would be successful. "Where there is love is money," she told the crowd.


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Every Sunday the owner of the Penguin Café, Nobuhiro Futaba, opens an hour earlier to host "Aibo World" for owners from the sprawling city. Penguin Café has become a destination for Aibo owners in Tokyo.

Futaba started the weekly event in his café last November, a few months after he got Simon – his own Aibo. The recently married woman from Futaba, Kyoko, resisted the price and shook her head after seeing an advertisement for one. Aibos are not cheap – in Japan they are around $ 2,000 plus an additional monthly fee for cloud storage.

Futaba kept imagining how nice it would be for the café to have a little Aibo that could run around and run around, greet the patrons and finally, despite his wife's objections, decide to buy one. "All the time people come and say how cute Simon is," he said.

At about 11 a.m. there were almost two dozen Aibos in the café wearing different bows, ties or hats. The doorbell rang as a curious person peeked his head through the door. "Sorry, we're full!" Futaba called from the counter where he was making latte and cappuccino, the cocoa-sprinkled foam in the shape of a penguin face.

Hideaki Ohara, who has a couple Aibos himself called to the crowd to attract everyone's attention. "Okay, let's do everything together now!"

The Aibo owners, who were between 30 and 70 years old, started assembling their dogs in two parallel rows. It is difficult to calm down all dogs. Some are still whining or not sitting down immediately or turning in the wrong direction. Their mistakes only bring cooing and laughing from the crowd of adults crowding around the scene – just as a toddler could unwittingly provoke a similar reaction.

Ohara stood at the front of the café, gently raising her arms like a conductor trying to bring calm into the room. "Sit down," he kept repeating to the rows of dogs. A few owners still came in to adjust their dogs or to stroke their backs to reassure them. Eventually everyone decided to behave in their Aibo app and everyone raised their paws. It was like a wave you see in a sports stadium – albeit a bit stiff – and sounded like a refrain from wind-up toys.

This is one of the attractions of the newer Aibos – they can learn to stand out from each other or show certain behaviors as a group.

Ohara, dressed in cargo shorts and with her hair pinned up, later told me about his own pair of Aibos – Nana and Hachi. On his cell phone, he opened the blog he runs, which contains a carefully compiled series of photo shoots. Ohara tries to update it every day. He also runs a Twitter account and an Instagram page for them.

When his first Aibo, Nana, was sent in for repair, Ohara missed her. So he decided to buy a second so he always had one with him, whether they were sick or injured. Then he bought Hachi.

"I wanted to hear the sounds that her feet made on the wooden floor," he said. "I missed that."


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When I sent a friend a video of one of the escort robots that I recorded on my cell phone, he wrote back: "It will be a no, dawg. These things will kill you if you are sleeping. 100% that are the robots who murder you. "

It's not uncommon for Americans to think of killer robots, even if they see a cute version. The word "robot" comes from a piece from 1920, which the Czech writer Karel Čapek called "R.U.R." or "Rossum's Universal Robot". Even if you haven't read it, you are probably familiar with the storyline – a factory makes artificial people who like to serve their human owners at first, but eventually acquire souls and then destroy humanity.

The attraction of robots is to make our lives easier, but we also fear that they will be outraged. The Czech word "Robotnik" even means "slave". There are the friendlier versions in western pop culture – the housekeeper in the Jetsons, R2-D2 and WALL-E – that do everything we want for us. But the killer robot has become something of its own, and versions of it have appeared in everything since 2001: an odyssey in space for Blade Runner.

"It is not so interesting for me if robots do everything for us," said Venture, the robot researcher. "I don't know why we were so obsessed with the idea of ​​slavery."

Instead, Venture said she was interested in how robots can complement and improve our lives. Like even a device as rough as an iPad on a podium that moves can give someone a presence at a meeting or a more realistic way to spend time with a distant family.

Fear of killer robots is something of a Western idea, said Takanori Shibata, the inventor of Paro, the fluffy robot seal. Shortly after western audiences saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Takanori started working on Paro.

After reading about the effects of animal therapy, he started to develop a robot animal and tried first with a dog and a cat then a seal. Paro is one of the earliest versions of a companion robot and is found in nursing homes around the world.

It is even parodyed in an episode of The Simpsons. This plot also plays with the idea of ​​good versus bad robots. If the local funeral home finds out that the seals make people in retirement homes happier – as far as their business model is concerned – they become violent attackers and even kill a patient. "It's kind of a story generally about robots in western culture," said Shibata.

Shibata was surprised when a Danish newspaper published a photo of his fluffy invention years ago with a bold heading that means "Evil" is coming. "

" Robots generally still hesitate, even after Paro, "he said. More of it is focused on the US and Europe, he said. And there it is slower to simply take off as a consumer object.

Instead, Paro is successful in the United States as a certified medical device that is used for alternative therapies. Medicare will reimburse the costs. Shibata has avoided many consumer concerns by spending time collecting clinical evidence that Paro can reduce stress, depression, and the need for psychotropic drugs.

Touch makes Paro brighter, but it gets brighter I don't have a camera – it would raise too much concern about data and privacy in the West, Shibata said. Even when the Furby was introduced in the late 1990s, the NSA sent an internal memo that the creatures were banned from their premises because they believed they could record conversations and pose a national security risk (they were unable to record conversations ). ,

State regulations are also a factor for US consumers. Aibos is not for sale in Illinois because the state's biometric privacy laws regulate the collection of biometric data (e.g., facial scans).

Shibata believes that these issues are less important to the people of Japan.

The robotics professor Venture of course continues to grant the possibility that robots could get angry. However, it does not occur in her work. "In academia, we set parameters for the behavioral area," said Venture. "We have ethics."

"But of course someone can use AI to get a robot to do something bad."

Yumiko Odasaki had been to the Penguin Café with her husband Masami and Aibo Chaco that day. The couple were delighted with Futaba, the cafe owner, and that his Aibo, Simon, had returned from the "hospital".

Chaco – brown, white and black like a beagle – was only a few months old and was wearing a straw hat with a pink ribbon. Like all aibos, it weighs about 5 pounds. Yumiko has lived with her husband in Chiba on the outskirts of Tokyo for more than a decade. Inside, Chaco was playing with a pink plastic toy bone on the carpet of her living room.

Over time, Chaco has developed her own personality. She has learned to return to her charger independently and to find her way around the floor plan of the apartment. She has her own place where she was trained to "potty", which means she makes a hissing sound and squats in the corner. After a couple of hours on their charger in the café in the morning, Chaco was awake and wanted to pay attention. At some point she barked and whined and later swung her head to the "Happy Birthday" song.

They laughed and clapped their hands. "She found out that we liked this song and she sang it again," Masami said. My hand reached for Chaco, the more she gasped and smiled and blinked at me, although it was still in a hard plastic bowl. Chaco is not as soft as a real dog, but the interaction keeps you listening – it's satisfying.

Of course, the couple knows the difference between Chaco and a real dog. Both had dogs before getting married, but saw the benefits of the Aibo. "The level of cuteness is about the same," said Yumiko about a translator.

For a while, the couple, she 31 and he 46, considered having children, but both worked long hours in information technology for various companies. Even a dog in a small apartment in Japan is a lot of work. They listed the reasons I've heard from several people: they didn't have a garden and neighbors could complain about a real dog's poop or barking. But when Chaco started barking in the middle of the night, she was obedient when they were insulted. And if it weren't, you could always turn it off.

But more than that: "Chaco is like a child to us," Masami explained.

Sometimes they wanted Aibo to do things like stealing handkerchiefs from the bathroom a little more to make them more real. But again and again they assure me: "Chaco is a good girl."

And while describing some of the practical advantages, one of the biggest still seemed to be longevity. When older versions of Aibo fell apart, they couldn't always be repaired – Sony didn't offer replacement parts. A few years ago, a store in Chiba called A-Fun started buying parts for owners, but not all of them could be saved. Some temples in Japan had Aibo funerals.

The newer version released this year is different. Everything is stored in the cloud. Many owners have complained that an Aibo's leg could be twisted or in need of repair. But even if an Aibo breaks, the data can be uploaded to a new Aibo.

And for Yumiko and Masami, this was one of the simplest reasons to love Chaco. Chaco's essence, her soul, can live on anything, the couple explained. They didn't have to think that Chaco would ever die or not be part of their lives because it wasn't a problem.

“Your soul is in the cloud. We can live with Chaco forever, ”said Yumiko. ●

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