Saturday, March 14, 2015

Robot Funerals Are Going to the Dogs

Aibo, the robotic dog, is terminated.
Image result for aibo
"Aibo" is a homonym of a Japanese word for "pal."
He was launched with great fanfare in 1999, selling for about $1000. He could see, hear, respond to commands in Japanese, English, and Spanish. He was able to learn, able to express his "emotions" and even to lift his leg while making what one owner described as "an indescribably beautiful tinkling sound," something which, as far as I know, has never been said about the sound of a flesh-and-blood dog's peeing.

Image result for robocup osaka 2005
Aibos competing in the 2005 Robocup held in Osaka
About 150,000 Aibos have been sold. But in 2006, Sony stopped making them  In 2014 the company stopped repairing them, and now, as spare parts become unavailable, many of them are "dying."
Image result for robot dog funeral
This Aibo is still alive & feeling playful
In Japan, many Aibos who can no longer be repaired are being given funerals, with a priest presiding over the same ceremony that would be held for a dead pet, a prayer being said for the release of its spirit.
Image result for robot dog funeral
A Buddhist priest conducts a funeral for 19 robotic dogs in January
After the funeral, the robotic dog may become an "organ donor" for other Aibos in need of repair.
A-Fun supervisor Hiroshi Funabashi (L) puts the Sony's pet robot AIBOs on the altar, prior to the robots' funeral at the Kofuku-ji temple in Isumi, Japan's Chiba prefecture ©Toshifumi Kitamura (AFP)
A "dead" Aibo is placed on the altar prior to its funeral
My husband thinks this is something that would only happen in Japan.
Not so.
Americans (and maybe others) serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, mourned and often held funerals for their robots who were "killed" in action. In 2013, a MARCbot named Boomer was given a send-off with full military honors, including a 21-gun-salute. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his "heroism."
The Sad Story of a Real Life R2-D2 Who Saved Countless Human Lives and Died
This pak-bot was named Scooby Doo
Human beings are not the only animals that can grieve. Koko, the gorilla who became famous for learning to express herself with sign language, grieved over her first loss, a kitten that she had selected and named. More recently, she grieved over the death of Robin Williams, one of the many humans for whom she felt friendship.
Image result for koko the gorilla
Koko and her kitten, All Ball (She named him herself)
As dog owners, we know that dogs can feel grief, both for the loss of their owners and for the loss of dog companions. Sometimes, they grieve for years.
Bailey refused to leave his owner's grave for 10 years.
Personally, I think that any animal capable of feeling love can also feel grief.

But we may be the only animal that could mourn for a robot. I agree with Andrew Brown, who wrote in The Guardian a few days ago that "to mourn a robotic dog is to be truly human."

We are probably the only animals who can identify ourselves with almost anything: It doesn't matter whether it's a person, an animal, a robot, a fictional character, or even a concept. We can make it a part of ourselves; we can feel its pain; and we can grieve for its loss.

We can cry for our own lost pets and for pets we never knew (My husband and I both cried when reading One Dog At A Time about dogs in Afghanistan) We can cry for fictional pets like Old Yeller. And we can cry for any one or any thing that matters to us.

We grieve because we love. What we love--what we identify as part of ourselves--we will care for and protect to the best of our ability. That's a good and hopeful sign for the future.