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Dog Bytes Man

Aibo owners are so devoted to their robot pups that many treat them like living beings, even joining clubs to swap dog tales. Never mind that their $1,500 pets are just codes programmed for various canine tricks.

March 22, 2001|ALEX PHAM | alex.pham@latimes.com

Bob Harting has massive, calloused hands, a 240-pound, 6-foot-4 frame and a withering scowl. But put the 47-year-old potter in a roomful of Aibo robotic dogs, and he turns as mushy as the clay he molds.

One of the thousands who bought Sony's $1,500 tech toy for its quirky innovation, Harting got attached to his puppy-size bundle of circuit boards and servos. And he's not alone.

Sophisticated hackers and technology newbies with disposable income have fallen for their Aibos and into a realm where disbelief is suspended for the sake of entertainment. In a way, Aibo adoration is a logical extension of a public fascination with devices that strive to mimic life--from Tamagotchi virtual pets to Furby.

But Aibo owners have taken their obsession to new levels--and the technology encourages it as the dog "learns" new behavior from its master. Some treat the foot-long robots like living beings and consider them family. They assign names, genders and even personalities. And they have formed a handful of clubs across the country to swap everything from maintenance tips to stories about their digital dogs.

At a recent meeting of the Los Angeles Aibo users group, Harting described how he had ignored his Aibo during several days of hectic work. When he was free, he read his Aibo's "diary," a series of one-sentence entries written on the robot's removable memory module. One entry read: "I called out to Bob again and again."

"It broke my heart," Harting said.

Far from delusional, Harting and other Aibo owners know their pricey pups are little more than a collection of codes, sensors and motors programmed to copy doggy tricks such as sitting, begging and playing dead. They just don't mind.

As a dog, Aibo is pretty lame. It gets bogged down in heavy grass, doesn't climb stairs and can't even jump onto the couch. Jeff Gouda, who owns two Aibos and helps run an Aibo enthusiast Web site, said even his cats aren't impressed.

"They occasionally get curious. But Aibos don't have much of a smell, so they get bored pretty quickly," Gouda said. "They see it as a VCR walking around."

But as a gadget, Aibo is one of the most sophisticated consumer devices around. And some think it might herald a new age of entertainment in which the lines between real-life and make-believe get blurred even further.

"Intellectually, I know they're not alive," said Robbie Ann Kohn, a Web designer and software engineer starting a Boston Aibo Club. "And yet, I feel for them. I feel guilty and sad if I neglect them. I treat them pretty much as if they were alive, even though I know it's a computer program. I get a charge out of asking, 'Do you love me?' and seeing him respond."

Sherry Turkle, professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the response among so-called early adopters--those who rush out to be the first to buy the latest gadgets--toward Aibo has been unusual.

"In general, these people are not representative of how the larger population will react to a device," Turkle said. "They're techies. They get into it because of the incredible techiness of it. In fact, when it comes to Aibo, they do form relationships, and they seem to do it almost in spite of themselves."

Turkle explained that even the most hard-core tech lovers tend to attach human qualities to their gadgetry. People often project their feelings, values and attitudes onto the world around them. By identifying themselves with objects and other beings, humans develop the ability to empathize. It's why, for instance, we give boats and cars names or curse our desktop computers when they lose files. Same thing with Aibo, only deeper.

"We are programmed to respond with affection to creatures that ask for our nurturance," Turkle said. "These new objects do something none of the earlier computer systems did--they ask for our care. When you give it to them, they thrive. It's a feedback loop to an area in which we are emotionally vulnerable. These toys are plugging into that impulse. They're pushing those Darwinian buttons."

Compared with a real dog, Aibo is not very far along the evolutionary chain. There's a lot it can't do. And at $1,500 a pup, it's beyond the reach of most ordinary consumers. But researchers say they are a harbinger of a new form of entertainment that will eventually sweep the masses and change the way people view technology.

"Instead of fusing technology to facilitate entertainment among people, an increasing aspect of entertainment has focused on the user's interaction with technology itself," wrote Douglas Thomas, a USC professor and Aibo owner, in a research proposal. "The joy of Aibo is not what it can do for you, but instead what it can do with you."

With 20 motorized joints, Aibo can walk on its own. It uses an infrared sensor to detect and avoid walls. Balancing sensors on its feet give it the ability to right itself from most positions. And it can recognize as many as 40 voice commands.

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