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Robotic dogs get fancy farewells

Updated: 2015-02-26 07:27
By Agence France-Presse in Isumi, Japan (China Daily)

 Robotic dogs get fancy farewells

An AIBO (left), a robot dog with artificial intelligence, plays with Kuma, a shiba inu dog, after the funeral for 19 AIBOs at Kofuku-ji temple in Isumi, Chiba prefecture on Jan 26.Owners of the now-discontinued robots have had funerals for them. Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP

Owners of aging Sony AI pets that cannot be repaired give their pets elaborate funerals

Incense smoke wafts through the cold air of the centuries-old Buddhist temple as a priest chants a sutra, praying for a peaceful transition for the souls of the departed.

It is a funeral like any other in Japan. Except that those being honored are robotic dogs, lined up on the altar, each wearing a tag to show where it came from and which family it belonged to.

The devices are "AIBOs", the world's first home-use entertainment robots equipped with artificial intelligence, or AI, with each capable of developing its own personality.

"I believe their owners feel they have souls," said Nobuyuki Narimatsu, 59, who heads an electronics repair company specializing in fixing vintage products.

Sony rolled out the first-generation AIBOs in June 1999, with the initial batch of 3,000 selling out in just 20 minutes, despite the hefty 250,000 yen ($2,100) price.

In the years that followed, more than 150,000 units were sold in numerous iterations, including gleaming metallic silver versions and round-faced cublike models.

The dog came with an array of sensors, a camera and a microphone. The final generation could even talk.

By 2006, Sony was in trouble. Its business model was broken, and it was facing fierce competition from rivals in all fields. The AIBO, an expensive and somewhat frivolous luxury, had to go.

The company kept its AIBO Clinic open until March, but then told the owners that they were on their own.

For Hideko Mori, 70, that nearly spelled disaster.

Mori has had her AIBO for about eight years. She enjoys the conversations she has with it, and thinks it far more convenient than a real puppy. But in May, her beloved AIBO - fittingly named Aibo - became immobile.

"I e-mailed a former Sony worker, saying: 'Do I have no choice but to die like this because I can't walk?'" she said.

The engineer introduced her to A-Fun, a company that employs former Sony engineers, and her pet was fixed in two months. "I was so happy to see him back to health and at home," she said.

Hiroshi Funabashi, 61, who supervises repairs at A-Fun, said troubled AIBO owners think of him more as a doctor than an engineer.

"The word 'repair' doesn't fit here," he said at his home in Kasama, north of Tokyo. Scattered around him are dozens of AIBOs sent in with problems owners typically describe as "aching joints".

"For those who keep AIBOs, they are nothing like home appliances. It's obvious they think of it as a family member," he said.

Funabashi said he does not enhance the functions of aged AIBOs, but tries to restore them to health.

The problem is that repairs can take weeks or even months because of a shortage of spare parts. Dozens of AIBOs are now "hospitalized", with more than 180 on the waiting list.


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