Japanese Journal of Cultural Anthropology
Online ISSN : 2424-0516
Print ISSN : 1349-0648
ISSN-L : 1349-0648
Technology as Mediation : On the Processes of Engineering and Reception of the Entertainment Robot "AIBO"(<Special Theme>Anthropology of Science and Technology)
Akinori KUBO
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2007 Volume 71 Issue 4 Pages 518-539


The entertainment robot "AIBO," which was first marketed by Sony in 1999, has attracted many people as the first robot designed for everyday life. In this paper, I analyze both the engineering and reception of AIBO in order to question the relationship between science and culture, which can be seen in technology. In recent years, many authors have pointed out that technology has social or cultural aspects. However, it is difficult to grasp technology comprehensively because of its manifold nature. Because of that difficulty, authors in various academic fields tend to criticize each other for reducing the analysis of technology to a restricted framework of a particular academic field. To avoid that, and to grasp the dynamics of technology, I focus mainly on two instances in the case of AIBO in which elements belonging to different domains are connected. First of all, in order to construct the mechanical system of the robot as an attractive product, the engineers at Sony needed not only scientific knowledge but also cultural narratives about robots, which they mixed with scientific knowledge while constructing the system. In 1993, the engineers started to construct an autonomous robot system, based on a method of making robots called "subsumption architecture," as proposed by Rodney Brooks, an American researcher of artificial intelligence and robotics. Robots constructed using that architecture can keep 'robust' even in unstable environments outside the laboratory, but are not able to carry out any complicated tasks. The engineers of AIBO needed to make the robot an attractive product, while not designing it for any specific uses. For that reason, they made an image for the product before constructing its mechanical system, calling it the "New Three Laws of Robotics," paraphrasing the "Three Laws of Robotics" as proposed by the science-fiction author, Isaac Asimov, in his work. In order to make a product that would be attractive to consumers, the engineers translated certain characteristics of subsumption architecture according to the image of the New Three Laws of Robotics. By connecting the narratives of the robot, such as the Three Laws of Robotics, with scientific knowledge such as subsumption architecture, the engineers sought to design a mechanical system of autonomous robots. At last, their efforts bore fruit in a mechanical system for AIBO called "agent architecture," composed of a mixture of subsumption architecture and the New Three Laws of Robotics. In analysis of the engineering process of AIBO, I point out that in order to make a product worthy of being bought by consumers, the engineering of innovative technology involves not only the processes of constructing artifacts materially that depend on scientific knowledge, but also those of constructing perceptions about artifacts that depend on cultural resources. Moreover, the two processes of construction interact and are mediated by engineers' practices, such as in the making of agent architecture. Second, each AIBO has changed into "a member of the family" through the interpretation of its owner, based not only on cultural conventions but also the unstable operation of artificial intelligence in an ordinary living space. In their marketing strategy for the first-generation AIBO, the Sony engineers regarded its main selling point as giving consumers the chance to appreciate advanced technology in their homes. However, the relationship between AIBO and owners evolved into something much different from their suppositions. The owners like to make their AIBOs dance and wear clothes, and frequently gather at various locations around Japan to meet and share their robots. They prefer the 'cute' behavior of their AIBOs and communicating with them, rather than appreciating the actions that such sophisticated technology makes possible. I

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