A funeral for dead robot dogs
The head priest chanted sutras and grieving owners in black offered prayers for their "dead" pets. It had all the sobriety of a funeral for a human.
The event was organized by Nobuyuki Norimatsu, president of A・FUN, a firm that repairs electronic devices.
Norimatsu got the idea for AIBO funerals several years ago after he started getting requests from owners to fix their robotic best friends.
AIBO is 'alive'
Japanese electronics maker Sony released the first version of AIBO in 1999. The robot dog used AI to learn and grow, following its owner around and wagging its tail. It initially proved a hit, but Sony halted production in 2006. Owners could take their robot to the company for repairs until 2014. (Sony released an advanced AIBO in 2018. Its technology and parts are too different to be used to repair the old version.)
But 20 years after the release, many people still have AIBOs at home.
Yuko Matsuura of Gifu City purchased her first AIBO 14 years ago and immediately fell in love. She now owns 10.
She says each dog has a different personality.
"Some are lively, some are mild-mannered, and some are shrewd," she says.
"They're of no practical use. But even that makes them cute. They put me at ease."
The death of an AIBO
Owners send their broken AIBOs to Norimatsu's company in the hope that they can be somehow revived. Since Sony no longer takes repairs, companies like Norimatsu's are the only option.
Norimatsu used to work as an engineer at Sony. When he started his own company, he initially focused on repairing video players and audio devices.
But he says requests for AIBO repairs started flooding in several years ago, when Sony stopped accepting them. He says he's "cured" more than 2,000 so far.
Sometimes, when there are no more replacement parts or the fix would be too expensive, there's nothing he can do.
Some elderly owners give him their AIBOs, saying they can no longer take care of them. Norimatsu breaks these down to use their parts for repairs. But he says this is difficult. He can't just disassemble a pet someone had loved for such a long time.
So he got the idea of AIBO funerals, to give the owners a chance to say goodbye.
"Every AIBO has a heart that grew through interactions with its owner," Norimatsu says. "A funeral is a way for their souls to be returned to their owners."
He started holding the ceremonies four years ago. He has had services for about 500 AIBOs so far.
New bonds between humans and robots
Hidenori Ukai is a priest at Shokakuji Temple in Kyoto. He has been doing research into how people in Japan pray for the dead to be able to rest quietly.
He says in Japan, you can find stone monuments showing gratitude to everything--from animals to plants, even paper dolls. These monuments are all made to pray for them to be able to rest peacefully in death.
"Japanese people have long believed that all things that relate to humans have souls," Ukai says. "This feeling still remains in many people."
Improvements in AI have led to progress in the development of robots that can understand human thoughts and feelings. This may lead to humans and robots having much deeper bonds than the ones between people and their AIBOs. The day when robot funerals don't sound so outlandish may not be too far in the future.