Sony announced yesterday that the newest version of aibo, its doglike robot, is coming to the U.S. The big hook this time is that it has artificial intelligence, and can learn your face and house layout and stuff. It does this by constantly being connected to the internet. I guess, technically, the newest Aibo is a service dog — it needs a service plan, just like a cell phone, in order to keep functioning.
First things first: The new aibo (styled lowercase) is very cute. It has OLED displays for eyes, adding expressiveness, and you can pet it on its back and head and tickle its chin. It has a waggy tail. If you sing, “If you’re happy and you know it,” aibo will start playing the song and dance to it. When one aibo sees that another is getting attention, it will walk over and try to get some too.
Aibo also has a sensor on its butt called a SLAM camera, which will map its surroundings, and then you can use an app to control it. For instance, once it’s mapped the floor of your house, you can label sections of the map like “Kitchen” and then command it to go there. It can also find its charging station on its own when batteries are getting low. It can recognize up to 100 faces.
When it launches in the States next month, the aibo will come in a package that Sony is calling the “First Litter Edition.” You’ll get the aibo, some dog toys, an individually numbered dog tag, and … “a three-year AI Cloud Plan.” The service plan exists because pretty much everything aibo does is controlled from the cloud. It learns voices and behaviors and commands through a constant remote connection. It connects to Wi-Fi, and when not in range of that, it connects to AT&T’s network. You can control the thing through an app and customize features like eye color. (You can also use the app to change its gender at will, and aibo will pretend to pee differently depending on the setting.)
A First Litter Edition aibo costs $2,899 for the device and three years of service, which averages out to about $80 a month. Not too terrible for state-of-the-art robotics, but Sony did not have a concrete answer for what happens after those three years are up. Much like a smart speaker that pipes voice commands to a remote server for processing, the aibo becomes a lot less useful when it doesn’t have a cloud plan.
“The consumer will have that choice, what they want to do with it,” Cheryl Goodman, a Sony spokesperson, told me at an aibo demo event yesterday. “Three years isn’t trivial. I think it shows Sony’s commitment to the market, and to the consumer.” It’s still unclear what that additional service will cost.
Like basically every other new consumer tech product these days, aibo’s big new feature is “AI” and how it’s “predictive” and “learns” and so on. That’s ostensibly why it needs to be constantly connected to the cloud. The convenient thing about aibo, for Sony, is that it’s a can’t-lose demonstration of AI. Aibo would not respond to most of the commands I tried to give it yesterday, and speaking as a new dog owner, I can confirm that this is very true to life. The question of whether aibo is ignoring you because it’s supposed to mimic a dog’s playfulness or because Sony’s cloud system is inadequate can never really be answered by the user. Was aibo’s refusal to sit on command a bug or a feature? I have no idea.
So there are a lot of lingering questions. How well does aibo work after an extended period of time with its owner? How much is a service plan going to cost after three years? Do I actually need a robotic dog tottering around my house? All great questions. I cannot answer any of them, but I can confirm that this thing is very cute.