Aibo Sep 2005

Remember AIBO, the futuristic pet robot from Sony that amazed us with its dog-like appearance and behavior when it came out in 1999? It was probably one of the first examples of artificial intelligence the general public got a taste of, and we were quite duly fascinated with the antics of the robotic dogs, as evidenced by the fact that the first batch of 3,000 AIBOs sold out in just 20 minutes despite its 250,000 yen (about US$2,100 according to the exchange rate back then) price tag.

But now, more than 15 years down the line, AIBO owners who have become attached to their cybernetic pets, are facing a grave situation — an aging and ailing (or breaking down, in this case) population of AIBOs.

Aibo Sep 2005 (2)

The AIBO, which not only looked like a dog but came programmed so that each one would develop a distinct personality depending on its interactions with its owner, indeed seemed to symbolize the future at the time it was released. It’s estimated that roughly 150,000 AIBOs were sold in total, but it appears the business of developing intelligent robotic pets wasn’t quite profitable enough, as Sony decided to discontinue production of the AIBOs in 2006.

As sad a development as that was for AIBO fans, the big problem now for owners of the electronic pet is that Sony’s repair service for AIBO, the “AIBO Clinic”, was also closed in March last year. The predicament of these owners has been the topic of a recent article on Japanese news and information compilation site Karapaia.

The article focuses particularly on elderly AIBO owners who have come to rely on these robotic dogs for companionship and peace of mind. For them, seeing their AIBOs “grow old” and malfunction, sometimes needing new parts that are no longer available, is a heartbreaking experience, and with the repair service now shut down, they are having to come to terms with the “mortality” of the pets they had thought would never grow old or die.

To the owners who have spent many years with their AIBOs and treated them like a member of the family, this can be a surprisingly difficult experience.

▼ Major Japanese network TV Asahi showed a segment last year about AIBO owners struggling to accept the unexpected mortality of their mechanical pets:

But there is still a glimmer of hope. For desperate owners trying to find a cure for their ailing AIBOs, A・FUN, a company specializing in vintage machine repairs, could be their savior. The company was started by former Sony engineers, so we guess there are no better people to turn to if your precious AIBO is in need of some treatment and care.

According to the Karapaia article, when the engineers decided to take on AIBO repairs, they had to start by taking one of the robots apart and studying the incredibly complex machinery inside — no easy task, and made even more difficult by the fact that Sony was no longer making parts for AIBO.

But the engineers persevered, propelled by the love of the AIBO owners for their long-time companions, and they are now at a point where they are able to perform “transplants” of parts between AIBOs and even custom make the necessary parts in some cases.

As a matter of fact, they even held a group funeral service back in January this year for 19 decommissioned AIBOs whose parts would then be used for other AIBOs needing a transplant.

▼ The first generation AIBO that came out in 1999:

Aibo 1st gen

▼ And here’s a promotional video showing a later generation AIBO from 2003 in action:

Considering the amount of time and love these owners have given to their AIBOs, it’s not surprising that the engineers at A・FUN are being kept extremely busy with inquiries and repair requests. Hopefully, their work will allow many owners to spend a much longer time with their beloved pets than would be otherwise possible.

Karapaia’s article raises the issue of  whether it is reasonable to treat robots with artificial intelligence in the same way as regular toys. Should a company be allowed to cut off repair service for a machine that responds to you and grows with you? As technology progresses, this is the kind of question that we are sure to be facing more and more frequently. We can’t help wonder, how much longer will it be until we see kids playing with humanoid robots, and when that happens, will we be discarding these robots when they stop working or their parts become unavailable?

Source: Karapaia (Japanese)
Top Image: SONY Sep. 29, 2005 Press Release
Inset images: SONY Sep. 29, 2005 Press Release, SONY May 11, 1999 Press Release