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Out, Aibo, out

Once a symbol of Sony vision, doesrobo-pet's fall signify firm's decline?

TOKYO -- The world's first mass-marketed robot, Sony's Aibo, recognizes its owners' faces and is programmed for sympathy, like a canine companion. Its eyes light up in red to show anger, green to convey happiness. It even learns its own name.

Aibo owners tend to be fiercely loyal, too. The robots have even been hacked by tinkerers seeking to add their own modifications.

But none of that prevented Sony Corp. from disclosing last week that it is scrapping the four-legged robot pet as part of the company's bid to reverse flagging fortunes.

That isn't just disappointing Aibo fans, who bought 150,000 of the toy poodle-sized machines since they were introduced in 1999 and now worry they won't be able to get spare parts.

It may also have robbed Sony of some mystique.

Typical of dispirited Aibo owners, Paul Wallingford isn't placated by Sony's promise to provide maintenance for Aibos for seven years after production ends in March.

Wallingford owns four Aibos and lately has been keeping them turned off often so they're less likely to develop problems.

The Aibo, which costs about $2,000, delivers an amusing illusion of spontaneity and personality. It comes in black, white, brown, and gray and is programmed to move about on its own.

To many, the Aibo represented the tradition of innovation at Sony, which gave the world the Walkman portable music player and PlayStation video game machine.

Some hospitals used the Aibo -- which means ''pal" in Japanese and combines the first two letters of ''artificial intelligence" combined with ''bo" from robot -- in therapy.

The robots' charm comes in part from how their behavior somewhat reflects how they've been treated by their masters.

At times, an Aibo will refuse to be toilet-trained and impudently raise a hind leg -- although, of course, it won't ever wet the rug.

Masato Maruyama, an engineer, said he believes Sony isn't just hurting Aibo owners, who feel as if they're being told their pets have just seven years to live.

''I feel the decision to withdraw from a product that's so representative of Sony heralds an end for Sony as a global leader," he said.

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