Do robot dogs have souls? Japanese hire priests to pray for 'dead' electronic pets
It is a funeral like any other in Japan.
Incense smoke wafts through the cold air of a centuries-old Buddhist temple as a priest chants a sutra, praying for the peaceful transition of the souls of the departed.
Except that those being honoured are robot dogs, lined up on the altar, each wearing a tag to show where they came from and which family they belonged to.
Aibos at a temple altar. Photo: AFP
The electronic pets are Aibos, the world’s first home-use entertainment robot equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and capable of developing its own personality.
Mr Nobuyuki Narimatsu, 59, who heads an electronics repair company specialising in fixing vintage products, said: "I believe owners feel they have souls as long as they are with them."
Sony rolled out its first-generation Aibo in June 1999. Over the following years, more than 150,000 units of various Aibo models were sold.
Sony closed this section of the business seven years later in 2006, but kept its Aibo Clinic open till March last year for repair works on the models.
Kofuku-ji temple chief priest Bungen Oi offering a prayer during the funeral for Aibos. Photo: AFP
Ms Hideko Mori, 70, has had her Aibo for around eight years. She enjoys the conversations she has with it, and thinks it far more convenient than a real puppy.
"He doesn’t require feeding and he doesn’t pee... actually he does pee by cocking his leg, making an indescribably beautiful tinkling sound."
But, she said, nothing actually comes out.
Ms Hideko Mori (left) and her sister Yasuko Mori (right) playing with their robot pet Aibo. Photo: AFP
Mr Hiroshi Funabashi, 61, who supervises repairs at A-Fun, a company that repairs Aibos, said Aibo owners think of him more as a doctor than an engineer.
"The word 'repair' doesn’t fit here," he told AFP at his home in Kasama, north of Tokyo.
Scattered around him are dozens of Aibos sent in with problems owners typically describe as "aching joints".
“For those who keep Aibos, they are nothing like home appliances. It’s obvious they think their (robotic pet) is a family member," he said.
A-Fun employee Ikuhiro Kanbara with a shiba inu and an Aibo. Photo: AFP
Mr Bungen Oi, a priest at the 450-year-old Kofukuji temple in Isumi, east of Tokyo, said the Aibo service last month was an occasion in which the robots’ souls could pass from their bodies.
"I was thrilled over the interesting mismatch of giving cutting-edge technology a memorial service in a very conventional manner," he said.
It is a mismatch that humans will probably become more used to over the coming years and decades, as robots with “personalities” become ever more part of our lives.
Said Mr Funabashi: "I don’t know if people will develop affection (towards a new generation of robots) in five, six years’ time," he said.
"But I think we need to recognise they are not ordinary electrical devices."