Why You'll Want a Robot Dog That Speaks Your Email

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Few experiences rank as high on the surrealism meter as being asked to judge a robot dog contest. In following the cyber-pooch in question — AIBO, or Artificial Intelligence 'Bot — for two years now, I've seen Sony's high-end consumer toy go from a $2,500 limited-edition fad to a relatively mass-market, mass-produced $1,500 fad. But what transpired last Saturday afternoon at the Sony Metreon, San Francisco's massive multiplex and temple to all things techno, made me believe AIBO is leaving the realm of novelty and entering the living room and hearts of Mr. and Ms. Mainstream.

It wasn't so much the occasion, which was ostensibly AIBO's second birthday party. Nor was it the AIBO pet tricks contest I'd been drafted to help judge, though that was certainly amusing. No, the real reason AIBO became more of a viable mass-market proposition that day was a piece of software that will be released for the mechanical mutt this August. It's called AIBO Messenger, and it has the capacity to be a killer app — that all-important single piece of software that consumers desire so much they have to rush out and get the machine it's written for, much like Pokemon makes kids buy Game Boys or "The Sopranos" makes you want cable. The software in this case is, basically, e-mail and the web. No surprise about that; both have been killer apps in their own way for some time now. But now AIBO will bring you both in his own voice. Literally.

That's right, this bundle of canine circuits is going to start reading your mail out loud and doing web searches for you. The process will be as voice-controlled as any face-to-face interaction: you talk to him, he talks back. In theory, it sounds like the perfect pet trick for curious technophobes; a way into the Internet without pressing a key. Using a wireless link to your PC, AIBO downloads your new mail as it comes in and uses his hard drive and a special Sony memory stick to convert the text to voice. He even recognizes certain words and does the appropriate action —waving his paw when someone writes (and he speaks) hello. That rustling noise you will no doubt hear when Messenger launches will be the sound of several million kids putting him on their Christmas list. AIBO's web-browsing capabilities will, I am told, be limited to a few basic search commands from a select number of news and weather sites. But the amazing thing is that this first puppy step online has been taken, the speed with which it happened, and what it bodes for the future. When last I wrote about AIBO (in On Magazine earlier this year), I posited Sony might "some day" use its cute little device as a kind of "Trojan Dog," selling all kinds of online goods and services to you once you'd become sentimentally attached to the blasted thing. This was based on conversations with Takeshi Yazawa, Sony's Vice President of Entertainment Robots, and an AIBO guru. Yazawa talked in very vague terms about his pup's long term future as an entertainment and information platform; you might take him in the car with you and ask for directions, he said, or have him take pictures of the family with the nose camera and send them to Grandma wirelessly over the Internet.

Not once did Yazawa let slip that Sony was working on software to bring AIBO into this visionary future sooner rather than later. All he'd say was: "this is just the beginning of robots in the home." He's right. This is sure to be a hit with the still-can't-program-my-VCR set. That means a bigger market, a lower price, and in the long run a lot more of these Chihuahua-sized critters running around the place, accompanying us to the grocery store and on family visits. Not that I'm complaining. More AIBOs mean more AIBO enthusiasts —so I'm looking forward to a very respectable, if surreal, sideline in robot dog talent judging.