Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Aibo Funerals

The Aibo, an early commercial robot developed by the Sony corporation, was the one of the first truly robotic pets. The device, fashioned to look like a small artificial dog, could follow basic voice commands and engage in fairly complex activities. In 2014 Sony terminated support for the robots, and over time they began to break and stop working. A Buddhist temple in Japan is now conducting funerals for broken Aibos that can no longer be repaired. If funerals are really for the living, this makes more sense than it seems to at first.

The firm stopped repairing malfunctioning Aibos in 2014, leaving owners whose pets were beyond repair unsure of how to dispose of their companions. Kofukuji, a 450-year-old temple in Isumi, near Tokyo, has conducted services for 800 “dead” Aibo dogs in recent years. In January, Sony released an upgraded version of Aibo that uses AI and internet connectivity to interact with its owner and surroundings. But the consumer electronics giant has resisted pressure from owners of the original Aibo to resume repairs of old models.

Instead, owners of defunct robotic dogs can send them to A Fun, a company that repairs vintage products, which passes them on to Kofukuji. After the service — which does not involve burial or cremation — the firm removes parts that can be used to fix less seriously damaged models. Many of the dogs are accompanied by notes written by their former owners. “I feel relieved to know there will be a prayer for my Aibo,” one said. Another wrote: “Please help other Aibos. My eyes filled with tears when I decided to say goodbye.”

Bungen Oi, one of the temple’s priests, said he did not see anything wrong with giving four-legged friends, albeit of the robotic variety, a proper send-off. “All things have a bit of soul,” he said.

The Aibo is basically a computer connected to some sensors and motors, so it's no more alive than a PC workstation. However, it also is true that the Aibo offered a totally new experience to its owners when it came out in 1999. You could interact with it just like you could with an animal and it would respond in a seemingly organic fashion. Even though this was all done with software and algorithms that are primitive compared to what computers can do today, it's easy to see how owners could become attached to their digital companions.

Some people out there probably see this as a move towards recognizing machines as having "souls" or something silly like that. While I think it's true that consciousness is a property of quantum information and quantum information is a property of matter, the Aibo has no more of this sort of consciousness than a modern smartphone does. And after all, it's not like we're holding funerals for dead iPhones. This is more about recognizing that humans easily become attached to machines that act as if they are alive.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble

No comments: