Fake Pets

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Name: AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Robot)
Cost: $3000 plus accessories
Longevity: 10+ years
Maintenance: medium (charging and ‘training’ required)
Recommended for: well-heeled computer nuts

If you’re interested in owning a pet but don’t want the responsibility of caring for a living animal, these ideas may suit you.


Rebecca Harris road tested a robot called ‘AIBO’ (Pronounced “I-Bo”) which stands for ‘Artificial Intelligence Robot’. Although it may appear like a simple kids toy, don’t be fooled, these little machines are much more advanced than your average radio controlled gizmo.

AIBO is basically a machine designed to resemble a small animal and is powered by a small computer, or Central Processing Unit (CPU). This CPU enables the robot to adapt to and interact with its environment; giving it the ability to ‘learn’ from its interactions.

AIBO is a Japanese invention, first released in that country in 1999 and promoted as the first artificially intelligent robot introduced to the world.

That particular model was never released in Australia, however in 2001 the second generation AIBO, which was designed to resemble a small lion cub, hit the Australian market. About 400 AIBO’s have now found a home.

An AIBO owner will tell you that once these little machines enter your life, you’ll quickly stop thinking of it as a toy a regard it more as a pet.

Because AIBO’s behaviour is dependant on its interaction with its owner and environment, no two AIBO’s should ever be alike. Each AIBO  will form what could be loosely described as its own personality.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Artificial Intelligence is based on the principle of using computers to perform tasks which would normally be regarded as requiring human, or in this case, animal, intelligence.

AI is a fairly sophisticated computer program which allows AIBO to make what we would regard as ‘decisions’. AIBO can learn from its owners via sensors located around various parts of the body. The robot receives information from its surroundings all the time via a camera, microphone and pressure sensors on the paws, head and back. The information is stored on memory sticks which the owner can then further modify with computer software.

AIBO has voice recognition software which also allows it to understand up to 50 words. This isn’t an instant process though, when an AIBO comes out of the box, it is the mental equivalent of a baby, all it can do is wag its tail and cry. It can’t walk and wont understand commands. It is then up to the owner to ‘train’ it and help it mature. This is done through an ongoing repetition of vocal commands which are eventually stored in the memory and through a process similar to training a real pet using positive and negative reinforcement.

An AIBO which does something the owner regards as desirable is rewarded with a stroke on the head or back sensors. An undesirable action, usually something the AIBO does which may damage it, is punished with a sharp tap on the nose sensor. Eventually the AIBO will learn via this interaction which actions are desirable and which are not.

If you don’t want the hassle of actually training your AIBO, mature stage software is also available.

How Do They Compare?

So is an AIBO an adequate substitute for a real pet? While the manufacturers never claim it to be a pet replacement, owners have said that after having one of these little machines around, they do take on a more ‘pet-like’ position in the family.

Don brought Maurie along to compare the two together. Whilst it was apparent that an AIBO can never provide the bond which exists between human and dog, there were some benefits to owning one; no need to worry about moulting hair, no food bills and no nasty messes or smelly emissions to worry about. But likewise, with a purchase price of $3000 and little chance of developing a loving relationship, it probably isn’t the perfect pet replacement.

Virtual Petz

Rebecca also looked at a computer program which may be ideal for those who prefer to spend more time with their computer than a real animal.

Dogz and Catz are two computer programs which provide virtual pets that live on your computer. They need love, attention, water, food, exercise and veterinary care. You can reward their good behaviour and punish them if they are naughty. And if you don’t look after it, like any other pet it will run away.

Each program comes with about 15 different breeds which you can choose from. You select a pup and then care for it with various commands. And as you care for your virtual pet, you can watch it grow.

Distributors details

AIBO is manufactured by Sony