This Cute Little Pet Is A Robot

And Sony is betting robotic pets could soon be as hot as video games

Toshi T. Doi, Sony Corp.'s leading computer engineer, is obsessed with robots. Not the legless slaves that toil in Japan's car and VCR factories, but autonomous creatures that can navigate their environment and respond to changes. Doi's small, third-floor lab is a breeding ground for robotic pups taking their first wobbly steps, chasing balls, and barking for attention. "We're getting ready for the age of digital creatures," says Doi.

The age has already arrived. On May 11, Sony's Digital Creatures Laboratory officially introduced what is almost certainly the world's most sophisticated entertainment robot. Priced at $2,000, it's called AIBO, a Japanese word for "companion" that's also short for Artificial Intelligence Robot. And yes, AIBO is a robotic dog. This puppy is not ready to bring you your slippers, but in sheer brain power, he puts your basic Furby to shame.

Sony hopes AIBO is just the first in a whole menagerie of artificial dogs, cats, monkeys, and creatures yet to be imagined. Doi thinks robopets could become a new pillar of Sony's $40 billion consumer electronics business. The pets will start out with modest capabilities (table). Indeed, AIBO is just smart enough not to fall off the edge of a table. But within a few years, such companions could be running errands, helping with household chores, and assisting the handicapped.

Long before such smart robots march into homes, simple pets will be sopping up plenty of affection. The day after Sony's announcement, its Tokyo call center was flooded with more than 1,000 customers eager to order artificial pets. But will Sony be the one to set the standards for entertainment robots? Competition is already intense. In March, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. showed a prototype of a talking robotic cat with camera sensors for eyes, designed as a companion for Japan's quickly growing elderly population. Honda Motor Co. is pushing the "mechatronic" envelope with humanoid robots that can climb stairs. And in the U.S., Massachusetts Institute of Technology robotics maven Rodney A. Brooks runs a company called IS Robotics, whose machines were the prototypes for the Rover Sojourner that explored Mars.

Still, Sony has formidable advantages. In addition to the world's most recognized brand, the company has had a skunk works on robotics since 1994. They've road-tested early prototypes at international competitions, collaborating with the likes of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the University of Paris, and Japan's Osaka University.

TOUGH TASKS. The outlines of the business of the future began to take shape in 1993, when Doi heard about a competitor's project to develop a housecleaning robot. "I thought it was a terrible idea," he recalls. "The level of technology hadn't reached the point where it could handle such complex tasks." Yet the subject fascinated him, and for the next several months he brooded over the problems of the autonomous robot. His revelation, later that year, was that robots don't have to be chore-masters, which need a high degree of accuracy.

Not so toys. As head of a Sony product development lab in 1994, Doi enlisted Masahiro Fujita, an artificial-intelligence expert, to configure a robot with sensors. Fujita initially emulated the famous Genghis, a six-legged artificial insect developed in the late 1980s by MIT's Brooks. After foraging for parts in Tokyu Hands, a hobby-goods emporium in Tokyo, Fujita took just two weeks to crank out a six-legged crawler. Doi formed a development team, and over the next five years ran through six separate prototypes.

Doi, Fujita, and fellow engineer Koji Kageyama quickly surmised that robotic dogs or cats would hold greater appeal than anything resembling a cockroach. But the challenges of making a four-legged creature walk proved far greater than any of them had imagined. "We couldn't get the right balance between the weight of the robot and the power of the motors" in each joint, explains Fujita. A third and fourth prototype reduced the robot's weight and size, but a walking robot continued to elude them.

None of this fazed the individualistic Doi, a jazz musician who has recently taken up the quena, a South American flute that he plays at meditation gatherings. His message to his engineers: Just hang tough. A breakthrough came in 1996, when Fujita's team decided to use magnesium alloy instead of steel for the metal molding. The weight reduction allowed the robot to walk.

Until this time, Doi and his engineers had relied on Brooks's published architecture in designing the artificial intelligence of their robots. Doi, however, wanted his robots to move beyond Brooks. His core concept was a set of guidelines called the "Open-R" architecture--which he now calls the "masterpiece" of the entire development project. It relies on reusable chunks of software code known as objects, which minimize the need for programming individual movements or responses. Best of all, it's "open," meaning that it's designed to encourage a global community of robot specialists and programmers to add capability.

Yet Doi needed a bigger budget. In mid-1997, he approached Sony's top executives and got an enthusiastic response from President Nobuyuki Idei, who had already coined Sony's rallying cry: "Digital dream kids." Idei was on the prowl for a project he could call his own. Says Doi: "The entertainment robot was right on target." At the same time, Doi was growing increasingly concerned about his robot's appearance. He begged Sony's famed product designers to come up with the next Mickey Mouse. They failed him, but his friend, cartoon artist Hajime Sorayama, hit the visual spot with AIBO.

The last weeks before the May launch date were chaotic. The development group, which had grown to two dozen members, raced to iron out software glitches that were still plaguing the seventh prototype, on which AIBO is based. They worked overnight, through weekends, and--despite the protests of the personnel office--during part of the Golden Week holiday in early May.

Now, with AIBO officially launched, Sony wants to apply the lessons it learned from its hugely successful PlayStation video-game business. Lesson No. 1: Don't try to do everything in-house. Just as Sony early on lured hundreds of game developers to help with the PlayStation, Doi is inviting developers to create new programs for AIBO. How about a doggie that plays Jimi Hendrix tunes? "A developer could do that," says one Sony engineer. "AIBO already sings songs."

Sony also plans to leverage the power of the Internet. Rather than going through its usual distribution channels, Sony will market AIBO solely through its Internet home page. For now, it has allotted 2,000 units for U.S. customers and 3,000 for Japan. A modest start. But if Sony has its way, the planet will soon be swarming with new critters.

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