Sony jumps back into robotics after 12-year hiatus
Company reassembling former Aibo team to focus initial efforts on home-use device
REI NAKAFUJI, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO -- Twelve years after abandoning its robot business, Sony will relaunch it next spring with a robot for homes that resembles a dog.
The company is now forming a development team of people formerly involved with Aibo, a robotic pet dog that captured media attention years ago.
Sony has just emerged from a long restructuring period, but has yet to create products with new value. Still, the company hopes to compete with rivals in the U.S. information technology industry, which has a head start in artificial intelligence, by taking advantage of its expertise in mechanical engineering.
The company's first foray into the field will be a robotic pet, frolicking like a real dog while controlling home appliances at voice commands. It will be similar to smart speakers equipped with AI and internet connectivity, such as those offered by Amazon.com and Google, except that it will look and, to some extent, act like a dog.
Sony plans to make the proprietary operating system an open platform to allow outside developers to add features. In addition, technologies have already been mapped out that enable the robot to mimic canine behavior using advanced electronics.
Finding its niche
The in-home robot represents a strategic shift for Sony, whose President and CEO Kazuo Hirai suggested in June 2016 that the company may develop robots for industrial use, such as factory automation. Since then, however, the bar for cracking the industrial robot market has been deemed too high and would force Sony to compete with established players that already have high market shares. Sony feels there is a better chance for success in the home-use robot sector since it is still at a nascent stage.
Many universities, from leading national institutions such as the University of Tokyo and Tokyo Institute of Technology to midsize private institutions, have mechanical engineering departments that feed the personnel requirements for the country's robotics industry.
From the 1990s to 2000s, Japan's manufacturers flocked to develop so-called partner robots, aimed at assisting humans at home. One of the more notable success stories was Asimo, a humanoid that Honda Motor unveiled in 2000. It could walk smoothly, dance on two legs, and shake hands, and was meant for use in nuclear plants and households.
Sony commercially launched Aibo in 1999. Toyota Motor also unveiled a bipedal robot in 2004 that could play the trumpet.
News of these made headlines and hopes were high that robots would soon integrate into society. But robot development soon tapered off in Japan, partly attributed to the low level of AI, which hindered robots' ability to function autonomously. This roadblock made it difficult to increase functionality and plan ways to commercialize the devices.
Setbacks and stutter steps
Sony's development activity was affected after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, after which its shares fell sharply. Japanese manufacturers as a whole were slammed later during the global financial crisis of 2008 and the 2011 earthquake that devastated eastern Japan.
In 2006, Howard Stringer, then-CEO of Sony, terminated the Aibo program, deeming it a noncore business. The roughly 200 members of the program were disbanded and transferred to different divisions, including the PlayStation game console and digital camera divisions. Satoshi Amagai, who headed the Aibo business, left the company to launch Mofiria, a startup developing biometric authentication technology using finger vein recognition.
Sony at that time also had a team developing a one-seater, vehicle-like robot in a separate division, but the company eventually sold the team and associated intellectual property to Toyota.
While Japan's robot development largely laid dormant, AI advanced significantly, with the technology now emerging as a fresh stimulus for the robotics field. U.S. technology giants such as Apple and Google are making huge investments and hiring talent from all over the world for AI development. The two are now introducing smart speakers that draw on AI to autonomously make decisions. The technology powering these speakers is expected to be integrated into robots.
Japanese manufacturers, though behind the curve in AI, are once again focusing on robotics, seeing it as a winning strategy if coupled with the country's edge in mechanical engineering.
Toyota has recently unveiled a prototype nursing care robot it is co-developing with telecommunication giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone at Ceatec Japan, a home electronics and IT trade show that closed Friday. NTT rival SoftBank Group in June announced it was acquiring two robotics startups from Alphabet, the parent of Google.
Meanwhile, Sony is reuniting engineers formerly involved in the Aibo program that still remain with the company for the new project, including AI expert Masahiro Fujita. By combining its strength in mechanical engineering and AI, which has come a long way since Aibo, the company hopes to elevate its new robot business beyond that of merely controlling household electronics. It will determine what technology should be pursued as it refines its robotic dog.
Sony develops its own AI, but lacks the huge amounts of data needed to make it viable compared to Google and Amazon.com, which have huge repositories of data collected through their online platforms. During a high-level meeting in August, Executive Deputy President and Chief Financial Officer Kenichiro Yoshida said the company "can no longer compete in the same arena with them," referring to the two U.S. giants.
"Japanese manufacturers regaining strength can be seen in their efforts to develop robots that leverage technologies that have advanced in the past decade, such as cloud computing and AI," noted Atsuo Takanishi, professor at Tokyo's Waseda University.