A traveler happening upon a funeral for robot dogs might be taken aback.
Is this a performance art statement about modern life? Is it a hoax? A practical joke?
But this is actually a religious ceremony, and the emotions expressed by the human participants are genuine.
A dog-shaped robot—as opposed to say, a dish on wheels with a built-in vacuum cleaner—represented a focus on entertainment and companionship. When Sony released the AIBO (short for "artificial intelligence robot") in 1999, 3,000 units—the greater share of the first run—were sold to the Japanese market. At an initial cost of $3,000 in today’s money, those sold out in 20 minutes.
But AIBOs never became more than a niche product, and in 2006 Sony canceled production. In seven years, they'd sold 150,000 of the robots.
Some AIBO owners had already become deeply attached to their pet robots, though. And here is where the story takes an unexpected turn.
AIBOs aren’t like a remote-control car. They were designed to move in complex, fluid ways, with trainability and a simulated mischievous streak. (Meet Sophia, the robot that almost seems human.)
Over time, they would come to “know” their human companions, who grew attached to them as if they were real dogs. (Learn how playing games helped build the modern world.)
The AIBOs' programs included both doggish behaviors, like tail-wagging, and humanlike actions, such as dancing, and—in later models—speech.
So when Sony announced in 2014 that they would no longer support updates to the aging robots, some AIBO owners heard a much more somber message: Their pet robot dogs would die. The community of devoted owners began sharing tips on providing care for their pets in the absence of official support.
Nobuyuki Norimatsu didn't intend to create a cyberhospital. According to Nippon.com, the former Sony employee, who founded the repair company A-Fun in a Chiba Prefecture, a Tokyo suburb, simply felt a duty to stand by the company’s products. (Watch sunlight create a heart inside a Chiba Prefecture cave.)
And then came a request to repair an AIBO. Nippon.com reports that, at first, no one knew exactly what to do, but months of trial and error saw the robodog back on its feet. Soon, A-Fun had a steady demand for AIBO repairs—which could only be made by cannibalizing parts from other, defunct AIBOs.
Hiroshi Funabashi, A-Fun’s repairs supervisor, observes that the company’s clients describe their pets’ complaints in such terms as “aching joints.” Funabashi realized that they were not seeing a piece of electronic equipment, but a family member.
And Norimatsu came to regard the broken AIBOs his company received as “organ donors.” Out of respect for the owners’ emotional connection to the “deceased” devices, Norimatsu and his colleagues decided to hold funerals.
A-Fun approached Bungen Oi, head priest of Kōfuku-ji, a Buddhist temple in Chiba Prefecture's city of Isumi. Oi agreed to take on the duty of honoring the sacrifice of donor AIBOs before their disassembly. In 2015, the centuries-old temple held its first robot funeral for 17 decommissioned AIBOs. Just as with the repairs, demand for funeral ceremonies quickly grew.
The most recent service, in April 2018, brought the total number of dearly departed AIBOs to about 800. Tags attached to the donor bodies record the dogs’ and owners’ names.
Services include chanting and the burning of incense, as they would for the human departed. A-Fun employees attend the closed ceremonies, serving as surrogates for the “families” of the pets, and pliers are placed before the robodogs in place of traditional offerings like fruit. Robots even recite Buddhist sutras, or scriptures. (Meet a master of Japanese Tea Ceremony.)
According to Head Priest Oi, honoring inanimate objects is consistent with Buddhist thought. Nippon.com quotes the priest: “Even though AIBO is a machine and doesn’t have feelings, it acts as a mirror for human emotions.” Speaking with videographer Kei Oumawatari, Oi cites a saying, “Everything has Buddha-nature.”
AIBOs and similar robots are especially popular among the elderly, and limited research hints that robots could potentially act like therapy animals—though attachment to machines could also be a symptom of loneliness, an increasing concern in Japan. (READ: Will a robot be your friend or steal your job?)
Sony has now introduced a new line of more advanced AIBOs, and although they are apparently not technologically compatible with their predecessors, it would seem they stand a good chance of finding similar popularity with those who can appreciate the soul of a machine.
Though AIBO funerals are closed to the public, travelers in Japan can at other times visit the Isumi's historic Kōfuku-ji, one of several temples in the region including work by the master wood carver IHACHI. Isumi tourist info (Click on “Select Language” in the upper right for English.)
To learn about other personal robots, such as Paro, a therapeutic seal-bot, visit the permanent exhibit “Create your future” at Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo.
With reporting by Kei Oumawatari
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