Sony’s robot dog Aibo has been on quite the sabbatical – first released in 1999, the lovable electro pup continued to sell until 2005 before it was sadly retired to the kennel of discontinued tech.
You can’t keep an enthusiastic, voice-controlled pooch down for the long though – 13 years later, Aibo bounded into the CES 2018 tech show with a new doggy A.I, fresh design and some new tricks.
We squeezed in a bit of playtime with the new, improved and currently Japan-only robot pup to find out if he’s as clever as he is cute.
Design and features: puppy dog eyes
There’s no getting away from it – Sony's next-gen Aibo is super cute. And I say that as the owner of a Jack Russell-Chihuahua.
While previous generations have gone more for the ‘Terminator’ look in robot design, this Aibo tries to look like the real deal (as much as it can do when it’s silver and made out of plastic).
That’s partly because Aibo’s eyes are now expressive little OLED screens that blink and move in association with his body movements and mood.
Those body movements have been made smoother and more natural too, with a quad-core processor at its heart and a total of 22 actuators in charge of more than a hundred new moves, compared to his predecessor.
That means that the way he moves is much more fluid – from a playful bum wiggle and tail wag to a full on excitable run towards you, this is pretty advanced consumer-grade robotics.
Aibo has a camera in his nose, which uses face recognition to detect you and his surroundings. There is also one at the base of his tail, pointing upwards at the ceiling to help him further understand the space around him. I asked Sony how many faces Aibo could distinguish between and was told “a regular-sized family”, so around 4-6 people at a guess.
It can detect other Aibos, too. That’s important because Aibo’s AI capabilities mean he will behave differently depending on who is playing with him, and how often that person plays with and rewards Aibo.
A reward is given by petting one of the touch-sensitive panels on Aibo’s head, chin and back, and if given at the right time (when Aibo correctly completes a command, for example), will reinforce good behaviour just as it would a real dog.
Aibo physically responds to praise too, by raising his ears and wagging his tail. If you play with Aibo a lot, he’ll react differently to you than someone in the house he isn’t as familiar with. That was clear when Aibo bounded up to me at the edge of the demo area, looked up at me and barked, just as a real dog might if it didn’t know you.
That doesn’t mean he’ll always listen to you if he does know you though. Sony says that Aibo is like a real dog and won’t always do the things you ask of him – we assume that is something that would improve with time and training.
That was certainly clear in my time with Aibo. I saw two different models playing at the same time, and both had very different personalities. While one was very obedient, the other was lazy, and would often lay down for a quick nap before completing a command.
Give him a stroke to wake him up and he’d then do as he was told. They both had things they liked doing more, too. Aibo 1 loved to sing (through its built-in speaker), while Aibo 2 liked to play dead, sometimes doing so without being asked.
Using Aibo: a versatile robo-pup
Aibo has a two-hour runtime, and will return to its charging base when he runs out of energy. After a three-hour boost, it’s good to go again.
I asked Sony how many commands Aibo could understand, but weren’t given a definitive answer. We did hear the ‘handler’ use several commands during our time watching it, including “sing”, “bang bang” (to play dead), “sit” and “come here”, as well as accessory-based commands to kick the included ball or pick up the included ‘Aibone’.
These weren’t always executed accurately – sometimes Aibo would mis-kick the ball or miss picking up the bone in his mouth. Aibo isn’t able to move himself backwards out of a tight spot from what we saw either – from the edge of the demo area, for example. The handlers picked him up and moved him back towards the centre of the room every time.
Whether either of these things are something that will improve via AI learning or not, I’m not sure, but Sony did say that Aibo would understand more and more commands as they were added to the database over time.
Despite the noise of the booth, it was reassuring to see that Aibo picked up the commands it was given more often than not (and the nots could be down to Aibo ignoring them rather than it not hearing them). That’s thanks to four built-in microphones, cleverly placed throughout its body to ensure it never misses a word you say wherever you are in the room… unless it wants to, of course.
Sony Aibo ERS-1000 pricing and availability
Now for the bad news. Aibo is currently only available in Japan, and for a whopping 198,000 yen, or around S$2360, to boot.
Not just that, but you also need to pay a £20 (S$36)-a-month subscription for the LTE SIM card that comes installed in Aibo to ensure it has an always-on internet connection for full functionality and AI learning from the cloud.
Consider all the time you won’t spend house training, dog walking and poo scooping though, and that might well be money well spent.
At the time of writing, Sony hasn’t announced any plans to release Aibo outside of its native Japan – but we're still hopeful.
Sony Aibo ERS-1000 first impressions
With its big baby blues, happy smile and cheeky tendencies, Aibo is a seriously charming robot pooch that totally won me over in my short time with it.
That’s mainly because Sony has really nailed Aibo’s movements and expressions, so before you know it, you’re communicating with him just like you would a real dog (in your best talking-to-dogs voice, natch). And you’re pretty convinced he’s communicating with you too.
In reality, it doesn’t currently do much for its huge price tag apart from look ridiculously cute and carry out a handful of commands, but Sony is adamant this is early days, and that Aibo will continue to grow and get smarter over time.
For now, it’s just another dog we’ll have to admire from afar, but if it does ever find itself available for walkies on these shores, you best believe the waiting list will be sizeable – price tag and all.