Robot dog fills a gap for people with 'busy lives'

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What used to be the stuff of pure science fiction - a world where people buy electric animals because they can't afford the real thing - started to become real on Thursday.

What used to be the stuff of pure science fiction - a world where people buy electric animals because they can't afford the real thing - started to become real on Thursday.

Sony officially began taking orders for its Aibo robot pet via its website, for delivery in about three weeks. And it is preparing itself for thousands of requests from all over the world for an "animal" that can learn to recognise up to 50 words, play games, move about, "talk" in a burbling language and even take pictures when told to. But Sony won't say how many have been ordered yet.

Not only that, but it works out cheaper to own a £1,000 Aibo than a dog over a comparable lifetime, prompting Beverley Cuddy, the editor of Dogs Today magazine to comment, "for people who have really busy lives, it might fill a gap - in fact it might even be more suitable than a real live dog".

First launched in limited numbers in June 1999, the Aibo rapidly attracted a fanatical following: the 3,000 offered for sale in Japan, where landspace is at a premium, were taken within 20 minutes. Another 2,000 sold almost as fast in the US, despite being priced at $2,500. The "dog" can even learn its own name. Now Sony says it will make as many as people want, once it receives the orders via the website at www.aibo.com.

But isn't it taking us closer to the world described by the science fiction writer Philip K Dick in his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (later filmed as Blade Runner)?

In that futuristic book, real animals are so rare that ordinary people cannot afford to buy them, and so make do with realistic electronic versions.

That may have already begun, as more and more people live on their own or have jobs that do not allow them time to look after a dog or other pet properly. Ms Cuddy said many dog-lovers don't actually have their own dog: "Eighty per cent of people in Britain actively like dogs, but the number actually owning one or more dogs is dropping. It seems that there's a huge gap between the people who like dogs, and who have a lifestyle that can accommodate them."

The Aibo is often described as a robot dog, though Satoshi Amagai, president of the Sony Entertainment Robot Company that makes it, insists that conceptually "it's a baby lion, which is more related to the cat".

Whereas a normal dog would feel lonely if left alone, the Aibo can simply be turned off or recharged while its owner is away; and it learns rather like a real animal, thanks to the computer chips inside it. The latest version will even have a wireless link so that its owner can program it to make new sounds from a PC.

"It's interesting that a lot of the things that happen with real dogs also happen with these electric dogs," said Ms Cuddy.

"If you take one into a pub, people come over and talk to you about it and hug it, just like a real one."

Is she worried that she might find herself one day editing Electric Dogs Today? "Actually, a large percentage of our readers don't own a dog," she said. "Maybe one day there will be an electric dogs supplement. But I can't see that real dogs will ever fall out of fashion. They've got an ability to make you laugh, which these [Aibos] don't, really. They make you realise that you're human."

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