People have been fascinated with robot toys for many years. Before the age of electronics, they were called automatons. Automatons were mechanical devices with gears, cogs, levers, and springs. Just like some of our clocks and toys today they needed to be wound up in order to work.
One of the most complex automatons ever made was built by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a famous Swiss watchmaker, in the 1770s. It was called The Writer. It has around 6000 moving parts and can be programmed to write sentences up to 40 characters long. It still works.
In 1999 the Sony corporation released the first commercial electronic robot pet dog. His name was Aibo, a name derived from the Japanese word aibō (相棒) which means pal or partner. At $2,500 each Aibo wasn’t for the common folk. That’s about $3,800 in today’s dollars. Aibo responded to over 100 voice commands, such as sit and bark. Sony stopped making Aibo in 2006 and stopped supporting it in 2012.
In 2017 Sony redesigned Aibo and released the fourth generation the next year. The new Aibo has dozens of touch panels on its body and reacts much like a real puppy would, if you pet it. He also has OLED panels for eyes. He can blink and follow you with his eyes just like a real dog. A camera in his nose feeds video images of the world around him to his processor brain. Once he’s been trained to recognize his family’s and friend’s faces, he will interact with them naturally. He even has a toy bone he can fetch and automatically recharge himself.
This new generation Aibo is linked to the Internet of Things, IoT for short. That means that just like our laptops and tablets he is connected through WIFI to the internet and, in Aibo’s case, back to the Sony Corporation for software updates and feedback. Today all sorts of things are being connected to the IoT. You can even monitor your front door from the other side of the world with an IoT doorbell camera or do something as simple as check to see if you have enough milk in your refrigerator on the way home from work.
Today Sony is working, like most big electronic companies, on the development of Artificial Intelligence, AI, and connecting products to the IOT. Sony will be able to update Aibo’s programs so the little guy can continue to get more user interactive and behave even more like a real pet. The feedback from Aibos across the world will be used to not only develop a better Aibo but also to build ever more advanced Artificial Intelligence.
Recently, doctors have discovered that robot pets can be used to help elderly dementia patients who are hospitalized with memory loss. The robot pets keep the elderly mind active and connected , which can slow down the memory loss.
A companion robot for the elderly was invented by the Tombot Company: a golden retriever named Jenny. Jenny’s facial features were designed by Jim Henson’s creature shop, the same people who brought us the Muppets. You can watch someone play with Jenny here:
Many different kinds of robotic pets are becoming available: cats, dogs, seals, tigers, and even dinosaurs. Will they ever replace a real animal? It’s likely to be a long time before a robot pet will come close to replacing a live cat or dog from the local animal shelter. However, robot pets can be a fun toy and worthy companion for people who cannot take care of a live animal.
By Tim Shively, Sept 15, 2019