Sony recently announced a new AIBO (model ERS-1000)—a robotic dog companion capable of recognizing its owner, learning tricks, and independently explore its environment. The new AIBO will run for approximately $1,500 USD and boasts a host of various features including more sophisticated sensors, a greater range of motion to make its movement more realistic, and cloud connectivity.
There are other robotic companions on the market, such as the Paro seal and previous AIBO models. What makes these robots graduate from simple entertainment to a therapeutic solution? An exploration of robotic and virtual companions might give us more insight into the value of such devices.
The Tamagotchi Effect
For anyone who lived in the 90s, the virtual pet fad would have been hard to miss. Japanese company Bandai released the first Tamagotchi (a combination of Japanese and English for "Egg Watch") in 1996. Not long thereafter, it became one of the most popular and controversial toys of the decade.
Primarily marketed towards children ages 9 and up, the small device featured a digital screen where the user would be greeted by an egg. After some period the egg would hatch and your new companion would be revealed. The Tamagotchi story was that you were now taking care of some sort of alien that needed you to play with it, feed it, bathe it, reward it, and discipline it in order for it to grow and thrive.
The Original Tamagotchi. Image courtesy of Wikipedia [CC 2.0 SSA].
In order to simulate the necessity of care, the Tamagotchi would require regular attention, beeping to alert you of its needs. If you had a poorly behaved Tamagotchi from lack of discipline, it might beep for no reason. And so on.
Just like with a real pet, if you failed to meet the Tamagotchi’s basic necessities (or if it reached old age) it would die. Shortly after, a new egg would appear and you would start the cycle over again.
Schools across North America were somewhat divided on the approach to these devices—the regular attention it required made it a distraction in class, while other schools allowed them since it taught children responsibility. Some workplaces also placed a ban on them.
Another side effect, however, was that owners sometimes became emotionally attached and bonded to their virtual pets—a phenomenon referred to as the "Tamagotchi Effect", and observed in individuals of varying ages.
The Tamagotchi effect is now used to describe the emotional attachment between a human and any electronic or virtual entity or object.
The author of this article will neither confirm nor deny that she may have cried hysterically when her first Tamagotchi died when she was 9.
The first AIBO (ERS-110) was first released in 1999, and there were annual releases until 2005 (ERS-111 to ERS-7M3). Sony’s recent announcement of AIBO (ERS-1000) will be the first model produced in 12 years.
AIBO was, and still is, a sophisticated robot that was used for entertainment, education, and research. The robot dog featured Sony’s Aperios real-time operating system and OPEN-R hardware architecture once called the « mastermind » of AIBO since it allowed for distinct and interchangeable modules that could change the function or behavior of the robot.
AIBOware software allowed different modes of robotic companionship: Life would implement the characteristics of a puppy that would over time mature and behave more like a mature dog, Explorer would start as a fully mature dog character capable of understanding 100 voice commands, and a demonstration mode. The replacement to AIBOware, called « Mind », added the ability for the AIBO to autonomously dock and charge. For vision, the SIFT algorithm was used, which was published by researchers in 1999 and allowed for object recognition, mapping, navigation, and gesture recognition.
Of course, with such a sophistic robot capable of relatively realistic movement, character development, and owner recognition, AIBO owners too became subject to the Tamagotchi Effect. While the AIBO doesn’t die, the hardware and software still sometimes requires maintenance and in 2014 Sony discontinued support for the product. Replacement parts and services became scarce.
Some people integrated the robotic dog into their lives and became distressed when they were no longer able to keep their robotic pet operating.
In Japan, some owners held funerals for the AIBO dogs to say goodbye once they were beyond repair. Owners welcomed the pet into their lives just as they would a real dog.
Our ability to develop attachments and be comforted by robotic companions is something that Paro, a class 2 medical device in the US, intends to take advantage of for therapeutic purposes.
Paro was first developed in 1993 by a Japanese lab but was not demonstrated publicly until 2001. The robot resembles a harp seal, an animal that inspired the inventor during a trip in the Canadian Arctic. Paro comes with two 32-bit processors, motors and actuators for movement, 12 tactile sensors, three microphones, touch-sensitive whiskers, and is covered in a soft, simulated fur.
Paro recognizes faces, learns names (including its own), responds to touch, enjoys being cuddled, and awakens for the day and sleep at night. You charge it by "feeding" it with a charging cord that looks like a pacifier.
Paro has been used for therapeutic purposes for people with dementia, depression, and PTSD. The company has also expressed the possibility of Paro being used in long-duration space missions in which isolation and mental/emotional well-being is a concern for astronauts.
An Ethical Dilemma?
There have been some ethicists who have commented that devices such as Paro may not be ethical since we rely on robots to provide emotional support. Founder of the Green House Project, Dr. Bill Thomas, has questioned whether it is humane for us to entrust the emotional support of the elderly on robots. Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, researches the relationships between humans and robots and wrote a book titled Alone Together (PDF). Alone Together's main argument is that our interactions with robots that simulate emotion threaten our ability to relate to one another in a healthy way.
The relationship between humans and digital or robotic companions may seem strange, but perhaps useful for teaching children about responsibility and care, giving people a companion at home, and providing therapeutic benefits to the lonely or suffering. However, it's important to remember that there isn't a true substitute for human-to-human interaction.
Feature image courtesy of Sony.