Restart Radio: Robot pets

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Japan has long been at the forefront of the design and manufacture of robot pets: from the Tamagotchi to the Sony Aibo. But how would these gadget-critters be received in the West, where we are less inclined to see the boundaries between animate and inanimate worlds as blurred?

Lauren Collee is joined by Restart trustee Carolina Vallejo, who spends a couple of months in Japan each year as co-director of the Koshirakura Landscape Workshop – teaching designing and making for greater social sustainability.

Japan was one of the first countries to acknowledge the growing problem of e-waste, and has high electronic recycling targets. Yet we have questions about the success of the Japanese system. Even with recycling and care for resources playing a large part in social attitudes, the current rates of recycling cannot keep up with the increasing demands of a global consumerist culture.

We discuss how elements of Shinto philosophy, according to which objects have souls, have contributed to a society that is less hostile to the idea of an inanimate world that communicates with its users than it is here in the UK.

A poignant illustration of this is the mass funerals held for the Sony Aibo – multiple generations of robot dog that were discontinued, before a new model was released earlier this year in Japan. Many earlier generation Sony Aibo owners had developed strong emotional attachments to their robotic pets, and were left without ongoing support for its maintenance when the model was discontinued.

.@Sony brings back Aibo with some… notable updates https://t.co/cCajlQ96kH pic.twitter.com/zuMCjxoq9B

— CNET (@CNET) 1 November 2017

Robot pets have all kinds of potential: from use in nursing homes as therapeutic tools, as a way to encourage people to invest more care and time in the objects they own. But in light of the current model of ownership – where gadgets are dependent on software and services that remains under copyright – we must expect that there will be significant barriers to repairing and adapting them. And while the use of AI might enable these gadgets to develop increasingly distinct ‘personalities’, how could these services be manipulated and/or hacked?

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[Feature Image: Pre-2007 Sony Aibo (RIP). Image by Flickr user Steve Rainwater]

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