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Robot Dog History: Who Made the First Robotic Dog and When?


Before the world was introduced to humanoid robots like Sophia or backflipping bipeds from Boston Dynamics, there was the humble robot dog that stole the hearts of many: the Sony AIBO.

Now, with advancements in technology all over the world, robotic pets are more than capable of acting like the real thing — something that would have felt like a fever dream years ago. Each robot is programmed down to the last excruciating detail. Think about it this way: to make a simple object harness the dynamism, unpredictability, and lovability of a real, live puppy takes ingenious planning and even more intricate design. 

To truly understand and appreciate these intelligent devices, we have to go back to the beginning. The Sony Aibo has helped shape the future of human-robot interactions all over the world, resulting in our ability to accept these devices as part of our homes and even families. Let’s take a look at how the Sony Aibo defined a generation.

Who Created the Robot Dog?

The first robot dog was invented by Sony Corporation. The company first released the prototype in 1998.

AIBO, which stands for Artificial Intelligence Robot, was made available to consumers from Japan and America in 1999 as part of an effort by Sony to focus on creating devices that served as entertainment robots for the family.

1999: Meet The First Ever Home Robot, Aibo

The AIBO, a four-legged robot dog, became the first robot built and sold for home entertainment. The Sony Aibo is also the first robot pet sold to a mass consumer market, a feat that would cement its place in world history.

It was announced in the first-ever International Aibo Convention in Tokyo which went on for several years. Sony had released three generations of the iconic pup on its original run before discontinuing it in 2006.

AIBO Technology

The Aibo was also marketed by Sony as a robot pet with artificial intelligence, however rudimentary at the time. According to Sony, the robot didn’t just move its head or wag its tail. It could hear and respond to humans, and more importantly, make decisions and act on its own, making it one of the most autonomous robots the world had ever seen. It was capable of tricks that a real animal could do. 

Why Was Aibo Invented?

Sony Corporation made history with Aibo. Back in 1999, a mass-market robot dog-like Aibo was almost unheard of. So what exactly drove them to venture into robots and artificial intelligence? 

Back in 1990, Sony had just established a research center in Japan. The Sony CSL, which stands for Computer Science Laboratories, was an innovation center focused on furthering research in fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, systems biology, and more. 

Aibo was part of the company’s plan to engage in digital entertainment and a robotic pet that could be spontaneous, affectionate, and possess refined technology all at the same time. Aibo was just that. 

So it’s no surprise that prominent names from different countries were eager to contribute to the design and software of the original Aibo model. Among these names were artificial intelligence expert Masahiro Fujita, who later on received the IEEE Inaba Technical Award for Innovation Leading to Production for the Aibo; and artist Hajime Sorayama, who created the original Aibo body designs, which are now permanently part of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

First Generation to Second Generation Sony Aibo

2nd Generation AIBO

The Aibo possessed advanced technologies for its time. The early device, the ERS-110, had the ability to respond to its human owners, react to 100 voice commands, and have full mobility in its four legs. It also possessed object detection, an acceleration sensor to prevent falling down, and a touch sensor so it responds to being pet. 

Its behavior was known to resemble that of a real pet, although it was not capable of things that modern robots and even the modern Aibo are. The ERS-110 had a beagle-like appearance and is considered a rare device.

The 2nd generation Aibo had the most commercial success, selling 65,000 units at $1,500 each. The second-generation models had features that resembled a Jack Russell terrier. These robots are known to be the most common among the early models.

A More Doglike Third Generation Sony Aibo ERS-7

However, it wasn’t until the third generation of Aibo models (ERS-7) released in 2003 that Sony Corporation explicitly referred to Aibo as a dog. Before then, the team drew inspiration from lion cubs and even insects. While the public pretty much saw Aibo as a dog, this time, Sony actually agreed. 

According to PCMag, the home entertainment robots became remarkably more doglike after a marked effort from Sony. The robotics team studied the way dogs move, replaced certain gestures (a sideways motion of Aibo’s head became a forward-scooping movement), and enhanced the speed, making the ERS-7 one of the most commercially successful Sony Aibo models. The Aibo ERS-7 robots were priced at around $1,500 to $2,000.

Emotional Attachment to Aibo

The first few Aibo models had the ability to interact with humans in unique ways. This special interaction would later lead to emotional attachment to these robots — a phenomenon that drew the interest of researchers in social robotics

This could be due to the patent Sony Aibo software and artificial intelligence, which allowed the robotic devices to have “personalities” tailored to the needs of the human beings that owned them. 

2000-2005: Robot Dogs as Toys and Military Research Projects

Big Dog by Hanson Robotics

While Sony Corporation was continuously releasing new models of the Aibo in 2001, 2002, and 2003, there were other companies who sought to create the next generation of robot pet technology.

In 2000, Sega Toys released their own entertainment robots named Poo-Chi. The first robots had a gray body with either purple, pink, or green parts. Poo-Chi became a success and sold over 10 million units, thanks to its significantly affordable price tag. It has since been discontinued and replaced by FurReal Friends in 2002.

iCybie by SilverLit Toys

The iCybie by Hong Kong’s SilverLit Toys was also launched at the turn of the decade. It became one of the first robotic devices developed with voice recognition technology, allowing it to communicate with human beings even more intimately than an Aibo. 

On the other end of the spectrum are robots created less for cuddling and more for exploring dangerous terrain. Around 2000, DARPA had funded the creation of the original Rhex, the hexapod robot. In 2005, Hanson Robotics created BigDog, a quadruped military machine developed at the Harvard University Concord Field Station. 

However, the rover was deemed too loud and the project eventually ended up being scrapped. The company would, later on, create LittleDog, another quadruped designed for research on legged locomotion. 

2006: Goodbye, AIBO

A funeral for Aibos

When Was Aibo Discontinued?

Aibo was discontinued in 2006 due to low sales, according to Sony Corporation. It continued to offer repair services up until a few years later in 2014 when it stopped producing spare parts altogether, which led to the eventual death of many irreparable Aibo robots.

Despite the failure to make a profit out of the Aibo robots, Sony succeeded in making a lovable creature nonetheless. In fact, the loss of their Aibo robots prompted many owners in Japan and even in other parts of the world to mourn their “dead” robots through an Aibo funeral. As one Guardian article stated: “To mourn a robotic dog is to be truly human.”

2015 – Hasbro Joy For All and the Rise of Companion Pets

On the other hand, the next generation of social robots was released by Hasbro under their Joy For All collection. This featured cat and doglike robots programmed to keep human beings company, specifically those who are socially isolated, such as nursing home residents. That way, these patients need not rely on caretakers or real pets.

However, the Ageless Innovations Joy For All robots aren’t the first in the world to be dubbed social robots. Both domestic and educational robots have become an integral part of many educational and social centers across the world. Significant data has shown robots to have positive effects on brain stimulation as well as emotion regulation.

Some examples are Pepper the humanoid, Honda’s Asimo, and Telenoid. Even Sony had planned to launch a humanoid robot by the name of QRIO following the success of Aibo robots, but the day never came.

2018 – Sony Launches the 4th Generation AIBO

More than a decade after its discontinuation, Aibo robots make a comeback. In 2018, Sony launched the fourth generation of Aibo robots that vastly improved on the preceding third-generation models, in part to remind the public of Sony’s robotic prowess.

The new and improved Sony Aibo robots were housed in a sleek body, and there is no mistaking its doglike appearance. Fans were thrilled, and critical reception was positive, with many calling the new models a stunning feat of robotics and perhaps the most realistic one from Sony. 

It had large, bright puppy-dog eyes, roamed the vicinity on its own, and even knew how to bark for attention. It was also capable of responding pretty quickly to human voice and touch. Along with the actual robot that comes with its own charging dock, customers can purchase accessories like a pink ball and the “Aibone,” a toy bone. While these features are no longer new in the robotics industry, there’s no denying the nostalgia of the Sony Aibo.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was the first mention of a robot?

In January 1921, a Czech playwright by the name of Karl Capek crafted a dystopian play called Rossum’s Universal Robots, marking the first time the word has been used. 

As for creation, the Stanford website cites the earliest form of the robot, or the robot structure, as early as the first century A.D. when Petronius Arbiter made a doll capable of moving like a human. The modern robot was created by George C. Devol in 1950 and modified by Joseph Engleberger. The latter would be known in the future as the Father of Modern Robotics.

Sota Takahashi

Sota Takahashi is a Japanese-born electrical engineer. At the age of 18, he moved to Seattle and completed his Electrical Engineering degree at the University of Washington, Seattle. Being a fan of all things tech, he channels his geeky side through this website, and with his wife Linda, shares knowledge about robot pets and how they can be lifelong and advantageous companions for both children and the elderly.

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