In Japan, they love their robots. No, really. They love them.
A recent series of stories coming out of Japan uncovers a mini-trend among some fans of the Sony Aibo robot, which launched in 1999. Sony sold about 150,000 of them before the line was discontinued in 2006.
The Aibo robots are "dying" now, with their batteries and electronics reaching the end of life. Some Japanese owners are holding funerals for them because they formed real emotional attachments to these robots, according to interviews with robot owners.
Now, there's a new, even more lovable robot hitting Japan. It's called Pepper, and it's being sold by Aldebaran Robotics and SoftBank Mobile. Unlike the Aibo, which was designed to physically move and respond like a dog, the $1,600 Pepper robot is optimized for reading and expressing emotions.
About 1,000 of the Pepper robots went on sale in Japan earlier this month, and the full inventory was sold out in less than a minute, according to Softbank.
The robot makes humans feel like they’re "bonding" with a sentient, caring being even if it's made from plastic, wires and electronics. It's about four feet tall, has four microphones, two HD cameras and a range of sensors that enable it to perceive what people are doing. Pepper has wheels for getting around and arms for gesturing, mostly.
Interestingly, it's got a computer inside that's optimized to mimic human gestures and emotions. You talk to Pepper and Pepper talks back. People are going to love it—literally.
People love their dogs and cats, which reciprocate emotions in part because we have selectively bred them—consciously and unconsciously— over millennia to do so—especially dogs.
But people also form attachments to other less responsive living creatures, including lizards, spiders, sea monkeys—you name it.
Some people form emotional attachments to their cars, give them a name and even speak to them. In fact, any sort of complex machinery can cause us to feel at some level that it’s either on our side or against us, or inspire us to feel like it’s sentient even though we know it’s not.
The reason for all this is that the human brain is hard-wired to function in a social, human context. Our brains process any kind of response from any kind of animal or object as if it were another person, at least to some extent.
Not surprisingly, as robots and intelligent virtual assistants become more sophisticated, helpful and gain increasing abilities for natural language processing, we grow attached to them.
But some of this can be attributed to clever marketing.
For example, you might place all four major virtual assistant agents on a naming spectrum from most human name to least: Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google Now.
By simply naming their virtual assistant "Alexa," Amazon successfully made it easier for users of their Amazon Echo product to feel like Alexa is more sentient than, say, Google Now. (There's no question that Google Now is "better" and more sophisticated, but it doesn't feel like a person the way Alexa does.)
A second reason Alexa "feels" more sentient or human than the rest of the field is because she has a physical body. While all the virtual assistants are cloud services, including Alexa, the difference is that you interact with the single-purpose Echo hardware, which is mostly just a speaker inside along with a microphone and WiFi antenna. That helps create the vague feeling that it's an artificial being.