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How the Sony Aibo sold us on robot dogs
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I have a question for you: What is a dog? Well, what better way to find out than to see how technology tries to replicate it? The Sony Aibo (the name means either “partner” or “pal” depending on whom you ask) was the world’s first robot dog, and arrived in 1999. Its first iteration cost $2500, and immediately sold out, in part (apparently) due to its starring role in Janet Jackson’s self-consciously futuristic video for “Doesn’t Matter”. Over the next seven years, Sony put out an ever-developing roster of robot dogs, each one slightly more sophisticated than the next, the cloying cyber-aesthetic of the early ’00s evident in every rounded silver snout.
The end product was expensive and available only via exclusive channels. It was for adults, not children, unlike the many knockoff toys that followed, and the Furbies that preceded it. It may not be a huge surprise, then, that the Aibo was designed by an illustrator of sexy female robots: Hajime Sorayama. The dog’s designs are now in the collections of MoMA and the Smithsonian, valuable historical evidence of our desire for our robots to be subservient, obedient and controllable.
After all, like our meatier four-legged friends, the Aibo was always intended to be trained. Owners could feel like they were really creating personalities for these creatures, who would take their cues from interactions like voice commands, special Aibo-friendly toys and petting.
Sadly for these dedicated Aibo-lovers, in 2006 Sony withdrew its support for the first-generation Aibos, meaning this community of plastic pet owners were suddenly out of veterinarians. It wasn’t the end though: In 2018, they were back with a cuter reboot – the LED eyes of the ERS-1000 making them just a touch more adorable. All Aibo models, though, have some things in common: They inconvenience and delight owners with their responses, just like a “real” dog would.
It’s easy to diminish the desirability of the Aibo. Their hard cyborg shells are unappealing to cuddle or stroke, and their limited range of movement and response makes it hard for them to be unexpected in a way that truly delights. But the thing that is truly missing, to me, is dogs’ transcendent grottiness. Their willingness to roll in the shit of life, to enthusiastically sniff the excrement of mortality.
While the latest version of Aibo – which uploads its data to the cloud, and has wireless connectivity and facial recognition – is still, both literally and figuratively, big in Japan, the cyber-dog niche has adifferent resonance in the West today. Popular culture has convinced us of the “killer robot” possibility. Meanwhile, there is a growing awareness of the outsize impact that machine-taught algorithms have on our lives, through social media, search engines and even predictive text. Just like dogs, both real and Sony-produced, Alexa, Siri and Google track our movements and responses, adjusting and shifting without us ever noticing. By making the “training” element of machine-learning part of the fun of playing with an Aibo, Sony's robot dog is somehow more honest, an entertainment-version of the unavoidable tools we use to govern our lives. Plus, last time I checked – Alexa’s ears don’t waggle.
Not much, recently. But it’s been a few months since I sent this newsletter, so I’m going to direct you to this piece I wrote for The Cut about how Björk approaches creativity, and what I’ve learned from her.
I’ve been uninterested in cooking for weeks but suddenly felt invigorated and made these pickles over the weekend, then these soy-marinated eggs. Felt bad about linking to both of these since I’m also listening to the Bon Appetit saga on Reply All, which goes deep on how the magazine’s leadership entrenched racism. Also binged the whole Adam Curtis documentary series in three days which was perhaps inadvisable (NARRATIVE MEANING is suddenly EVERYWHERE).
And you? What are you into? What intimacies, experiences and ideas are we faking using technology this week?
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