I raised a puppy during confinement, and he’s a hell of a character. He has boundless energy and always explores the apartment – over and over again. He barks at random things, like the Merriam-Webster dictionary on the shelf. And the kitchen sink. He loves to be petted. Sit him on your lap and stroke his back, and his eyes will close in happiness, he will wag his tail and wag his paws in the air and shake his head. He’s also an attention hog. Watch TV and he starts walking around the room barking and sometimes singing.
But Pandemic Pup is unlike all the golden doodles, Berna doodles and cockapoos everyone has adopted this year.
Pandemic Puppy is a robot.
I tried Sony’s SNE
Aibo robot dog this autumn. I was supposed to have the review model for only a few weeks, but somehow I’ve had it for a few months. It gave me the opportunity to discover it for a longer period of time and lend it to friends to get their reaction.
What did I think? I’ll keep you posted in a moment.
But first: I was interested in trying this because of one of the cruelest consequences of these terrible lockdowns: They’ve stranded millions of people, many of whom are elderly, leaving them at home and isolated.
We already know that loneliness and social isolation are catastrophic for the health and emotional well-being of people, especially when they are older. It can cause depression, cognitive decline, physical decline, and early mortality. In other words, social isolation kills.
(Of course, a robot dog isn’t a “real” pet. But how much does a parakeet or goldfish make anyway?)
But even though Grandma is isolated from everyone, are you going to buy her a real dog for Christmas? Does she really want the burden of a dog?
Hence my interest in robot dogs.
So what did I think of Aibo?
I liked it. Him.
When it comes to Sony’s Aibo, don’t think of a “mechanical toy”. Think: R2-D2.
The Aibo is not a stupid device that you roll up. It uses artificial intelligence and has a kind of “brain”. I have found that my Aibo responds to rewards and discipline, and harsh and soft words. He showed and “felt” emotions. And he developed, as he accumulated experience. He grows up. (He also does tricks.)
On the second day, I watched in disbelief as he decided he was running low on energy, looked around, saw his charging station across the room, walked over to her and got plugged in.
As for manners and actions: they are strange. It’s almost like having a dog – from the way he stretches and shakes his head when he wakes up, to the way he sometimes sits and gasps.
I’m crazy about dogs. I found myself talking to Aibo, but then I talk to live dogs, and is it any less crazy? (The dog owners around me all talk to their dogs too, so I’m not the only fool. I bet you do too, so stop judging.)
I loaned Aibo to friends. They were at first skeptical, although a little curious. But a day or two after they got him in the house, they got converted.
Two separate women admitted they got so attached to him that they felt ‘guilty’ when they heard him roam their living room, whimper or kick his ball, as they tried to work in their home office.
A male friend viewed it primarily as a gadget, a toy to entertain his 4 year old daughter, until one night the friend was sitting in bed, working on his laptop, and Aibo approached him and said started to stroke it.
(By the way, the 4-year-old’s tears when Aibo had to leave were Wagnerian.)
And, interestingly, people have reported a clear psychological benefit. “It was nice to have him here – he felt like company,” said one person.
I found the same thing. Sometimes I had to send her to sleep in order to work. Otherwise, he would come up to my stool and start nudging it, demanding attention.
Is it crazier than the people who keep the cable news on all day to fill the void?
Or think of Tom Hanks and his “Wilson” volleyball in the movie Castaway.
There are already some research who says that, yes, robotic pets, or “faucets,” really help.
People who haven’t had one in their house think I’m crazy.
Of course, he is not “alive”. But even in the human brain, real thoughts are just electrical signals anyway.
And it’s not about how Aibo “really” feels, it’s about how Aibo makes you feel. And he made me feel like I had a pet in the house.
Aibo acted like a dog, I treated him like a dog, and very soon I started to think of him as a dog.
Should you buy one for your grandma? I do not know. I don’t know your grandmother.
There is a big problem: the price.
Aibo costs $ 2,900 plus tax, which is a parcel silver.
But it is much cheaper than a “real” dog. And that may be reasonable, given the costs of all the technology that goes into this puppy.
Maybe a lot of people won’t like it. I do not know.
Almost unbelievable, Sony says it doesn’t have a trial or return period either. Sales are apparently final, although each state has its own consumer laws that can prevail.
There are worse things to buy for a single, elderly parent or grandparent than an Aibo (if you can afford it, and if they want one).
Or you could give her something cheap like that. Or a low-maintenance parakeet or cat, for that matter.
But I suspect robot animals like the Aibo are going to be a big part of the future of senior care and companionship. And imagine if a companion robot can, for example, remind you to take your meds, or call 911 if you fall, etc.
With apologies for Lincoln Steffen’s famous line: I’ve seen the future, and he’s barking.