For the first few days of his artificial life, after the box from Sony arrived and the batteries were charged, my AIBO robot dog behaved pretty much the way I’d expect a mechanical puppy to behave—he lurched around the house, emitting digital-sounding bleeps of pleasure every time my 2-year-old son petted him on the head. He learned to shake and would reliably sit on command. He ran into the occasional wall, of course, but he never made a mess on the carpet.
Lately, though, he’s been acting strangely. Every now and then, he’ll launch into a canine version of John Travolta’s shuffle from Saturday Night Fever. Or he’ll turn his back to me and say in a perfect governor-of-California accent, “Hasta la vista, baby.”
These behaviors are not part of Sony’s official repertoire for AIBO. Instead, they’re the product of digital-age sharing. The behaviors come from other AIBO owners’ home-brewed packages of software, which they’ve offered on the Web. Think of it as a kind of cross between the Westminster dog show and Sybil: You see another robot dog sashay with style down a virtual runway and almost instantly you can zap that entire personality to your own pet.
This “personality swapping” between AIBO owners is an entertaining distraction, but it begs a profound question: What will happen when people start to teach their robots new tricks?
The name AIBO is a conflation of three words: Artificial Intelligence roBOt. Also, the word aibo means “companion” or “pal” in Japanese. The latest model of the robot dog can be trained to recognize its owner’s face and voice and understand about 100 words or phrases.
AIBO has a range of preprogrammed behaviors, but you can encourage certain routines and discourage others, based on the feedback you deliver to the machine. For instance, each AIBO is “born” with a predilection for the color pink and will happily gravitate toward the pink ball that comes as a standard accessory. Stroking the robot dog’s head will positively reinforce that behavior. Or you can teach AIBO to be indifferent to the color pink by thwacking it on the head every time it shuffles over to the ball. There’s something undeniably intriguing about being able to train your own personal robot, but there are limits to what positive and negative reinforcement can accomplish. To begin with, no amount of petting is going to teach an AIBO to do the Macarena. For that you need to be able to directly reprogram AIBO’s “brain.”
Not surprisingly, a growing number of AIBO owners have attempted to do just that. Sony’s initial response to tinkerers messing with AIBO’s sophisticated internal works was to dispatch a team of lawyers to shut them down. But ultimately the company decided to cultivate independent programmers by releasing a number of software developer tools that make it possible to create a variety of customized AIBO behaviors. “Much of the fun is in creating something new and having your AIBO do something that has never been done by any robot before,” reports one coder, who goes by the handle Aibopet.
Thus far, most of these robot milestones have taken their cues from pop culture. You can download AIBO hacks that will transform your robot dog into Scooby-Doo or a canine version of the Terminator. You can push the boundaries of family friendliness with the Exorcist AIBO, which does just about everything Linda Blair did short of projectile vomiting. Or you can engage in an elaborate Q&A with the HomieGate AIBO: Ask “Who invented the Internet?” and AIBO will respond, “Al Gore.” You can also turn your AIBO into the ultimate party animal. “Some programs make for good demos when you get together with friends or, even better, with friends who have AIBOs,” says Aibopet. “A good example is Disco AIBO, which lets a group of several dozen robot dogs dance in a choreographed manner.”