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December 1999

More Japanese Embrace Pet Robots

While many Japanese people are choosing to own pet robots with artificial intelligence, there are many others who doubt whether these high-tech robots can ever serve as replacements for live pets.

When Sony marketed AIBO, a doglike robot designed to interact with humans, in June this year, people's reactions were mixed. Some hailed this cutting-edge invention, saying, "It's as cute as a real dog." But some shied away, claiming the robot was scary, precisely because it acts like a real dog.

One animal expert had words of warning for fans of the robo-pet: "Keeping a pet robot is easy, since owners don't have to deal with it when it's not convenient for them. And they can throw it away when it breaks down or when they grow tired of it. It's far better to keep a live pet, even if this involves a lot more work. I'm worried that pet robots might encourage people to handle living creatures with even less care than they do today."

A growing number of people are taking a fresh look at the pet robot, however. Dozens of AIBO owners are sharing their experiences on AIBO Town, an Internet Website (Japanese only). The site operator believes that most visitors are up on the latest computer technology and are keeping AIBO as part of their "high-tech lifestyle."

AIBO owners contribute stories almost daily to the Website, touching on such subjects like how much their pet robot has "learned," how AIBO reacts to a real cat, and how AIBO responds to strangers. Many apparently regard their "pets" with affection.

One nursing home director in Osaka Prefecture has found that pet robots can have a positive effect on residents. The home cooperated with a company developing a pet robot for elderly people living alone, and the director notes that residents' reactions were quite interesting.

"In the beginning, many were skeptical, saying 'Oh, it's just kid stuff' and 'How can a machine touch me emotionally.' But as they played with it, most of them enjoyed interacting with it. Some people may dislike such robots, but in some ways they have the same effect on people as real pets. It might help people open up more to others," says the director.

The Kanagawa Prefectural Board of Education, meanwhile, is planning to use pet robots to help promote the psychological development of children who refuse to go to school.

Sony, encouraged by the popularity of AIBO, marketed a new version in November. Just like the original, the new AIBO has artificial intelligence that can replicate emotions like joy, anger, and sadness, expressing them through actions like wagging its tail.

The price is 250,000 yen, the same as the earlier version, and 10,000 units were put on sale. Nearly 130,000 orders were placed in Japan alone, and the company conducted a drawing to choose the buyers.

Photo: The AIBO is gaining attention as something more than just a mechanical dog. (Sony Corp)