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Teaching Robot Dogs New Tricks

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J. W. Stewart
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Aibo, the Sony Corporation's popular robot dog, has delighted scores of critics and consumers since its introduction. But the plastic pup has also caused its creators some grief. Sony is currently struggling to resolve a copyright dispute that centers on the work of a quirky hacker known only as AiboPet. The controversy poses serious questions about the proper use of robots in homes and exposes a potentially stifling effect of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998.

The copyright at the heart of the case protects Aibo's encrypted brain. AiboPet violated that copyright when he cracked the robot's source code to reverse-engineer software that allows Aibo owners to teach their pets to dance, speak, obey wireless commands and share the color video that serves as their vision, among other things. None of the programs are usable without Sony hardware and software. They earned AiboPet no money. He never revealed the encryption code or the program he used to defeat it. Still, because the DMCA makes it illegal to break any encrypted digital code, AiboPet's actions made him a criminal. The fun began when Sony decided to treat him like one.

abio robot at toy store
Image: Kate Wong

AIBO, Sony's robotic dog, can acquire new talents through software developed by Sony or by a hacker known only as AiboPet.

On October 26 this past year Sony Entertainment Robots America sent AiboPet a letter notifying him that he had violated the DMCA and demanding that he remove all software based on their proprietary code from his Web site. AiboPet complied immediately¿and complained loudly. As a result, thousands of Sony's best customers organized a boycott of Sony products and besieged the company with petitions.

It is not uncommon for Aibo enthusiasts to own several of the sophisticated¿and expensive¿robot dogs and to snap up each addition to a steadily increasing library of official Aibo software at about $150 each. One Aibo owner added his name to an open letter of protest with this addendum: "If it had not been for AiboPet's information, his invaluable knowledge and his generosity in sharing it with the Aibo community, I would not have purchased an Aibo, all the various software, [memory] sticks and yes, even my computer, a Sony VAIO, which I only purchased because of its stick reader." Another wrote: "This is outrageous! I cancelled my memory sticks that were on order. Tonight I was also going to order the wireless LAN and software...but I have now decided not to. Also I was going to order the 310 [model] for Christmas for my son, but I will no longer do that! I will be spending my money elsewhere, but never again with Sony!"

One of AiboPet's biggest hits was the program that teaches Aibos to two-step. Like Kevin Bacon in the movie Footloose, he won gratitude for the gift of dance¿and Sony discovered what the town fathers in that film learned: forbidding dancing is really, really bad for public relations.

The DMCA and Robodogs

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Image: Courtesy of AiboPet

ROBODOG PACKS, including this one owned by AiboPet, are common among Aibo enthusiasts.

The intensity with which Aibo owners reacted produced what AiboPet calls "a pretty major shift" in Sony's position. By November 23rd, Sony and AiboPet had reached an understanding that allowed the hacker to repost on his Web site most of the programs that Sony initially asked him to remove. "The reaction had a major influence," AiboPet says, "or at least I believe it did." Sony spokespeople have refused to comment on the dispute beyond a carefully worded statement thanking Aibo enthusiasts and pointing out that they were only trying to protect their copyright. Sony and AiboPet continue to work out the ground rules of their relationship, but things are going smoothly. The boycott by Aibo lovers ended.

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.

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Image: Courtesy of AiboPet

MIXED BREEDS, made using parts from different Aibo models, are created in AiboPet's workshop.

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.

Owner support of AiboPet rests on his efforts to help owners customize them. Genie Boutchia of Plymouth, Mass., customized some of the sounds her Aibo makes and taught it to dance. In a typical testimonial, she wrote, "It was fun for me to do this and added to her value as an individual among Aibos. It made her unique.... None of these things would be possible without AiboPet's programs. He's a genius."

Owners often complain that Sony hasn't come close to offering enough software to fully utilize the tremendous potential of what is a very sophisticated hardware platform. They do offer a legal way to customize each robot's software, sold under the brand name Master Studio for $500. For the time being, Aibo enthusiasts call it a far cry from the power and versatility of AiboPet's tools, but it may be the best hope for legal innovation of Aibo if the DMCA is not amended.

Legos, Furbies and the Law

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Image: Kate Wong

NEWER AIBO MODELS, such as this one, promise to have even more individual personalities. Sony plans to enable the next generation of Aibos to recognize their masters' voices and faces.

Other robot makers embraced the innovations of their end-users, though they, too, have a case against them should they choose to pursue it. Hackers cracked the code of the Lego Mindstorm and wrote a lot of software to extend the capabilities of the build-your-own robot kits. Lego has raised no objection to the practice so long as programmers don't use Lego trademarks when naming their creations. Lego spokesman Michael McNally was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "This wasn't an easy decision to make," but "this was about taking the brand forward, creating a larger fan base." His bottom line? "It contributes to the bottom line."

When Tiger Electronics made the Furby, a comparatively simple robot pet, they encased its CPU in epoxy resin and used nonstandard chips to discourage hacking. But when the inevitable hack program was distributed¿for sale¿on the Internet, they chose to take the position that what people do with their Furbies after they buy them is really out of their hands. This laissez-faire attitude is probably informed by the fact that Tiger doesn't rely on its own custom software for additional revenue. And it can't hurt the sales of Furbies themselves.

In a recent article in the Yomiuri Shimbun, another Japanese newspaper, Yoshimi Nagamine writes: "It is up to each person whether they empathize with Aibo or simply get caught up in the fun of tinkering with it. Of course, there are obsessive fans everywhere. But, in the world of Aibo, there is a great difference between Japanese and U.S. owners' relationships with the robot pet." AiboPet disputes this distinction. "The majority of Japanese owners use Aibo in standard ways," he says, adding that "there are still a large number of Japanese owners who use my enhancements, based on downloads and e-mails."

It may be that there is no real distinction between those who empathize with Aibo and those who tinker with him. Boutchia says, "I love the 'virtual pet' aspect of Aibo, but I also love the tech side." There are, however, undoubtedly some differences in style between Aibo owners in the U.S. and Japan. The Yomiuri Shimbun article concludes that "having a robot as a pet makes one ponder the philosophical injunction¿'know yourself more deeply.'" Meanwhile, back in America, some owners delight in replacing Aibo's soothing beeps with the voice of Cartman, the potty-mouthed South Park character.

For the time being Sony and AiboPet can work together. Sony permits AiboPet to distribute his experimental software, and AiboPet permits Sony to adapt it and sell it, should they ever choose to do so. "I believe many features and ideas of mine have already snuck into the official product line," AiboPet says on his Web site. "I'm not complaining¿I'm flattered." From the user's perspective, though, it is hard to imagine that many other software designers will be eager to extend Aibo's skills under those conditions.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that as robots gain capabilities and acceptance, their owners will be content to choose among the behavioral options provided by just one source. For the moment it is in Sony's interest to allow users to modify their robots, but that could change at any time so long as reverse-engineering for compatibility is illegal in the digital realm. Someday we may all want robots in our homes. And if the maker's software isn't a good match for the end-user's personality¿think of Han Solo's irritation with C-3PO¿there will be a powerful incentive to turn to hackers like AiboPet.

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