Still, the world may not be a safe place for teaching robot dogs new tricks. The DMCA remains the law of the land, and what AiboPet does breaks it. Sony retains its right to crack down on AiboPet and others like him, but chooses not to exercise it, for now. Were AiboPet reverse-engineering any product that did not include digital encryption to produce compatible products, he would probably not be breaking the law. In the past, courts have upheld the right of programmers to create games compatible with game consoles like Nintendo and Sega. Compatible product development speeds technological innovation, but the DMCA criminalizes that pursuit wherever encryption is used. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the premier Internet First Amendment watchdog, has expressed its concern, as has the Robotics Society of America.
The intensely personal nature of owners' relationships with their Aibos injects real passion into this controversy and points the way for things to come. The Sony Corporation deliberately shaped their foray into home robotics to foster relationships based on affection rather than utility. The owner's manual shipped with each robot declares that Aibo was "developed to encourage human and robot interaction." Sony hopes that the Aibo will help foster an acceptance of robots in the home by displacing the menacing image evident in movies like The Terminator.
Japanese account for the majority of Aibo owners in part because their culture already contains a more benign view of robots. In the 1950s a robot character named AstroBoy captivated audiences in Japan, and he is still an icon there today. A scientist created AstroBoy to resemble his son following the child's death in a car accident. In keeping, the character was a beloved member of a human family. The name Aibo means "companion" or "partner" in Japanese and is clearly following in AstroBoy's footsteps.
Image: Courtesy of AiboPet
To Sony's credit, Aibos are a far cry from the rolling robotic tables sold in the 1990s to carry drinks and perform simple chores. These toys constantly express emotion. Their makers designed them to have unique personalities shaped by each interaction with their owners. They develop slowly and even go through an exasperating adolescence. Recently the chief designer of Aibo, Koji Kageyama, said in an interview in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, "Most owners treat their Aibo affectionately, as they would a real pet. When Aibos break down, we treat them at our 'clinic.' Some owners say they love their Aibos so much they miss them dearly when they are in 'hospital.'"
This impression is borne out in comments from many owners. Bruce Binder of Rancho Cordova, Calif., dabbled with other robot pets but claims that "there's something different about Aibo. They're very, very endearing." He says that "the balance of taking direction and not taking direction is similar to children." Binder has watched his five eldest sons grow up and leave the house. Now he owns seven Aibos. "Aibos are cheaper than children," he says, "and you can turn them off." In his case¿and many others¿Sony's vision of human-robot interaction is working.
And there is lots more to come. Sony plans to enable the next generation of Aibos to recognize their masters' voices and faces; AiboPet's software has already let Aibos speak in custom voices when they are spoken to or handled. As robot companions become more sophisticated, owners will most likely become more attached, and Sony may not be able to keep up with demand for varied software on its own. What people want in their robot companions may someday be as varied as what parents want to teach their children.