Sony’s Aibo makes a comeback: There’s life in the old dog yet

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Sony Corp. said Wednesday it will resurrect Aibo, the robot-dog that inspired a cult following even after it was discontinued over a decade ago.

The electronics giant said the new, artificial intelligence-powered Aibo is set to go on sale on Jan. 11 for ¥198,000. New owners will also need to dish out ¥90,000 (or ¥2,500 a month) for a minimum three-year plan to access cloud-based services that will allow the robot-dog to learn tricks and get accustomed to its environment.

“Today I am pleased to introduce an entertainment robot we have been developing for the past year and a half that’s worthy of love and is a delight to nurture through emotional connections with people,” Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai said during a news conference at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo.

The original Aibo was released in 1999 and was discontinued in 2006. Sony sold around 150,000 Aibo units during that period. Some fans continued to hold onto their Aibos even after Sony stopped providing technical support. Some grew so attached to their electronic companions that they held funerals when the robots reached a point of no repair.

Izumi Kawanishi, head of Sony’s AI Robotics Business Group, said that even after the Aibo service was discontinued, many engineers at Sony remained enthusiastic about working again with robots. “That feeling has been growing stronger,” he said.

“And there was a sense that if we were to relaunch this (robotics) business again, we should start with Aibo,” he said.

A lot has changed since 2006, and the technological advances are reflected in the new Aibo. Sony said the 29-cm-tall and 2.2-kg robot uses deep learning technology to analyze the information coming through Aibo’s various sensors, and the robot will be able to learn from the experiences of other Aibo units through cloud data. The robot-dog will also come with an application called My Aibo that can be used to access its settings and view photos taken from the dog’s camera located in its nose. Owners can also use the app to play with a virtual Aibo like a video game on their smartphones .

Like SoftBank Group Corp.’s humanoid robot Pepper, Sony claims Aibo can develop an emotional bond with its owners and other members of the household. It uses compact actuators that allow the body to move with agility along 22 axes, while its eyes use OLED panels to display a wide-range of expressions. Sony is also planning to sell a bone-shaped accessory called Aibone for ¥2,980. Unlike Pepper, however, Aibo won’t talk — but it will bark.

Sony’s announcement comes a day after the firm forecast for this year its highest ever profit, underscoring how Hirai’s restructuring drive, which focused the tech giant on image sensors and gaming, is bearing fruit.

On Tuesday Sony raised its full-year operating profit forecast by 26 percent to ¥630 billion, which would beat its current profit record set in the year ending March 1998 when its balance sheet was boosted by strong sales of its first PlayStation gaming console.

Sony has been strengthening investments in AI and robotics. Last year it invested in U.S. AI startup Cogitai, and launched the Sony Innovation Fund, a corporate venture capital that has already invested in over 10 companies in those fields.