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Beyond Play: How Robot Pets Are Enhancing Human Lives

Daniel Kim Views  

Professor Kim Jang Hyun of Sungkyunkwan University’s Department of Global Convergence Studies

A few days ago, a press conference by a respected sports figure in Korea sparked a wave of empathetic comments online. Although family bonds allow us to endure hardships, how far can we accept the unconditional love being exploited and our family members being sacrificed? The comments echoed a shared sentiment that family misconduct should never reach illegal activities.

Reflecting on the meaning of family brings to mind the Japanese consumers who treat their robot dogs like family. Twenty-five years ago in 1999, Sony released a robot dog named Aibo, which means artificial intelligence robot. This robot, equipped with Sony’s proprietary operating system, was able to move naturally with 18 movable parts including the legs and waist. With a 64-bit processor, touch sensor, speaker, microphone, lithium-ion battery, CCD camera, and cutting end specifications for its time, this advanced robot was loved by everyone from children to people in their 60s, recording high sales. While attempts were made to export it to countries like the United States, most of the initial models were consumed in Japan due to their popularity.

Children’s reactions were particularly impressive. They recognized Aibo as an intermediate entity that was neither living nor inanimate but did not hesitate to befriend it. Studies reported that Aibo had a positive effect on children’s social development and their communication abilities with robots. Another study found that people who had interacted with Aibo had a positive attitude toward robots, increasing people’s acceptance of robots and spreading positive perceptions of human-robot communication.

As Aibo was equipped with emotional expression and learning abilities, it was talented in communicating with children and the elderly. Elderly Japanese who had built a deep bond with Aibo through communication often chose to honor their broken Aibos’ souls by enshrining their spiritual tablets at local temples rather than discarding them. Some elderly people said they were able to overcome the sorrow of losing a pet dog, thanks to Aibo.

Aibo, which had ceased production in 2006, was relaunched in 2018 under the model name ERS-1000. Those who had long used the first-generation Aibo welcomed its return, feeling as if they had regained their family and vitality. The relaunch of Aibo was particularly welcomed by the elderly, people with disabilities, and single-person households.

The development of robots is dazzling. At CES 2020, Samsung Electronics introduced a robot called Ballie that looked like a ball. The robot can project information that users are curious about onto a wall directly, and control electronic devices in the house per the user’s settings. Sophia, a robot developed by Hanson Robotics, has a human-like appearance and can engage in natural conversations, even bringing about fear as it mimics human expressions. The Atlas robot, acquired by Hyundai Motor from Boston Dynamics, stands out for its mobility, capable of walking, running, performing somersaults, and even parkour. Ameca, a humanoid robot, can mimic human expressions and gestures and has an AI-powered brain. Tesla’s Optimus can immediately undertake tasks that humans perform at home or in factories. It’s interesting that while harassment towards others is becoming more frequent, companion robots and humanoid robots that comfort humans are rapidly growing. However, having the basic human nature of practicing love is more urgent than the development of robot technology. If human beings can feel compassion and affection even towards advanced robot dogs, shouldn’t we also possess the virtue of showing warmth to the people around us? No matter how complicated society becomes, we must not give up on the basics, such as family love and neighborly love, which we can even feel for robots.

Daniel Kim
content@viewusglobal.com

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