Thursday 20 September 2018

Sony aims to take the lead in AI with return of robot dog

Sony Corp’s president and chief executive officer Kazuo Hirai holds entertainment robot “aibo” at a Tokyo press conference. Photo: Reuters
Sony Corp’s president and chief executive officer Kazuo Hirai holds entertainment robot “aibo” at a Tokyo press conference. Photo: Reuters

Yuji Nakamura and Yuki Furukawa

Sony is bringing back its iconic robotic dog, aibo. The new version (which Sony is marketing as "aibo" instead of the prior "AIBO") comes equipped with a powerful computer chip, OLED displays for eyes and the ability to connect to mobile networks.

Like its predecessor, the new pet toy responds to voice commands and can bark, sit and wag its tail. It's small enough to be picked up and has rounder edges. Pre-orders for the Japan-only 198,000 yen (€1,495) gadget began yesterday, with shipments starting in January.

The AI-enabled canine is another sign of Sony's willingness to take new risks. After a deep restructuring that gutted its workforce and product lineup, the electronics maker now expects to report its highest-ever operating profit this year. CEO Kazuo Hirai, who has been working on turning the Tokyo-based company around since 2012, has encouraged engineers and marketers to come up with new ideas, from digital aroma dispensers and self-flying drones, to 3D sensors that can see the world.

"Sony's mission, and reason for existence, is to be a company that piques people's curiosity," Hirai said at a press conference in Tokyo.

"I'm convinced that a robot that can connect with a family, and give them a joy, is an embodiment of Sony's mission, and therefore asked for the development of aibo a year and a half ago."

The biggest change is that the new iteration will be more intelligent and proactively interact with its owner. The technology is based on work done by Sony-backed Cogitai, a California-based startup developing AI software that learns continually from real-world interactions.

While the new web-connected aibo employs AI, it's meant to be more of a companion or a pet toy, rather than a digital assistant such as Amazon's Echo or Google's Assistant. The word "aibo" means companion in Japanese.

The first version of the robotic pet dog debuted in 1999, and Sony stopped making them in 2006 as the company refocused its businesses. The original was advanced for its time, responding to commands and meant to recognise its owners. It could bark, sit up, lie down, wag its tail and play with toy balls.

With the new aibo, which has a SIM card slot for mobile internet access, Sony plans to connect it to other gadgets and home devices. (Bloomberg)

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