Sony’s Robotic Pup is the Friend We Didn’t Know We Needed

If we have learned anything from watching YouTube videos of cats and dogs doing funny things, it is that pets enrich our quality of life with their companionship. They amuse us, keep us company and are always there to engage with us anytime we need them. In some cases – such as with emotional support dogs – pet companions can also provide health and mood enhancing benefits. This phenomenon might be more important than we realize.

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration reports that Americans are experiencing a “loneliness epidemic.” In research conducted by the National Institute for Health Care Management, 43 percent of seniors surveyed – and one in five people surveyed overall – reported feeling lonely on a regular basis.

Even so, many people find that pet ownership is simply not an option. Allergies, challenging care requirements and cost of ownership can all be limiting factors. Others may find that pet ownership simply does not fit their lifestyle.

The good news is that technology is offering aspiring pet owners new hope to fill the companionship gap. Sony has created a robotic puppy called “aibo” that performs tricks, communicates with its owners and never needs to be fed or walked. aibo integrates artificial intelligence combined with a wide range of built-in sensors that can detect and analyze sounds and images. The sensors enable aibo to see and recognize people’s faces and hear voice commands. More impressively, aibo reacts to all of these stimuli, just like a real puppy.

The robotic design is also remarkable. aibo shows love for its owners through lifelike expressions and a dynamic array of movements. Its body language is expressed through a combination of eye, ear and tail movements, as well as different voice sounds. In addition, two tiny, TV-like OLED displays are utilized for aibo’s eyes, giving the appearance of blinking and closing.

By combining these technologies together, aibo is able to detect words of praise, smiles, head and back scratches, petting and more, allowing it to learn and remember what actions make its owners happy.

The result is that as aibo interacts with people over time, its behavior slowly changes and adapts in response to its unique environment. No two aibo companion robots develop the same way. Each owner’s approach to raising their aibo shapes its personality, behavior and knowledge. Over time, aibo continues to learn and develop as its owner’s approach to nurturing gradually shapes its personality. aibo will even learn new tricks through interactions with its owner, other aibo robotic dogs and different events.

The team overseeing Sony’s robotic companion business in the U.S. is located right here in San Diego. Michiko Araki, vice president and head of corporate marketing at Sony Electronics, says that making aibo look and behave like a real dog was a key design goal.

“This is truly a one-of-a-kind product designed to connect with its owners on an emotional level,” Araki shared with Giving Back Magazine. “aibo’s charming personality and ability to intelligently interact with family members help to create a personal bond that’s very much like a bond we develop with real pets. To me, aibo is much more than a robotic pup. It is a reflection of Sony’s commitment to creating products that not only entertain people, but also enrich people’s lives and provide social value.”

According to Araki, Sony is continuing to develop and improve its sensor, robotics and artificial intelligence technologies with the idea of creating other types of intelligent robots in the future.  In the meantime, aibo will continue digging its way into the hearts of animal lovers and those needing a new friend. Fortunately, this is the only digging owners need to worry about.