Companion Species 2.0: Aibo’s Extinction Traumatic Event, Cruel Reality

By Karen Asp

Sony has rendered its robotic pet dog “Aibo” obsolete. As The New York Times documentary “A Robotic Dog’s Mortality” shows, this extinction event has traumatized Aibo owners in Japan who are no longer able to repair or replace their beloved pets. A summary posted with the NYT documentary reveals that Sony had introduced Aibo in 1999 with the expectation of widespread adoption.

While Aibo was reportedly capable of evincing 60 emotional states in its final iteration, production of the robot was stopped in 2006 because only 150,000 units in total had been sold since inception. But until 2014, Sony continued to offer repair services to owners of existing units, prolonging the mechanical lives of these household pets, and the domestic emotional economies that flourished with them. That service was withdrawn last year due to dwindling supplies of spare parts as well as changing business objectives at Sony.

The non-repairability of electronics and electrical devices is an increasingly common phenomenon, locking users into cycles of new tech consumption even when the preference is for the old and familiar, the tried and true. What marks the demise of Aibo as an event in the realm of consumer electronics is the precise success with which this robotic dog produces psychological investments of the same intensity and narrative efficacy as do biological dogs, in at least some human families. One need only consider Donna Haraway’s journey of love and bondage to bio-dogs such as Cayenne Pepper, which she analysed under the figure of “companion species,” to glimpse the reality and sincerity of such emotional attachments. The heartbreak in the Aibo community lies in the finality of this product’s demise, an end not only of an individual, as if that isn’t hard enough, but of an entire species – an extinction event.

Aibo’s extinction thus reveals a brutal objective reality: the animating force of these affect-producing machines emanates from the corporate head office at 1-7-1 Konan, Minato-ku, Tokyo. The point here is not so much that Sony is to blame for the ensuing pain and suffering, although they, and the entire industry, should be held accountable for designing quickly obsolescent and non-repairable devices entailing negative social and ecological effects. More to the point, one ought to take note of how the social robotics industry is intentionally designing machines to behave in ways that humans are inclined to perceive as those of living and socially present beings. So inclined, we tend to fall in love with them and, thus attached, we are that much more locked into the “lifedeath” cycles of consumer capitalism; subject, that is, not to “life” cycles or “spiritual” processes, but to automatic processes of abstract value production.

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