The package arrived on a Thursday. I came home from a walk and found it sitting near the mailboxes in the front hall of my building, a box so large and imposing I was embarrassed to discover my name on the label. It took all my strength to drag it up the stairs.

I paused once on the landing, considered abandoning it there, then continued hauling it up to my apartment on the third floor, where I used my keys to cut it open. Inside the box, beneath lavish folds of bubble wrap, was a sleek plastic pod. I opened the clasp: inside, lying prone, was a small white dog.

I could not believe it. How long had it been since I’d submitted the request on Sony’s website? I’d explained that I was a journalist who wrote about technology – this was tangentially true – and while I could not afford the Aibo’s $3,000 (£2,250) price tag, I was eager to interact with it for research. I added, risking sentimentality, that my husband and I had always wanted a dog, but we lived in a building that did not permit pets. It seemed unlikely that anyone was actually reading these inquiries. Before submitting the electronic form, I was made to confirm that I myself was not a robot.

The dog was heavier than it looked. I lifted it out of the pod, placed it on the floor, and found the tiny power button on the back of its neck. The limbs came to life first. It stood, stretched, and yawned. Its eyes blinked open – pixelated, blue – and looked into mine. He shook his head, as though sloughing off a long sleep, then crouched, shoving his hindquarters in the air, and barked. I tentatively scratched his forehead. His ears lifted, his pupils dilated, and he cocked his head, leaning into my hand. When I stopped, he nuzzled my palm, urging me to go on.

I had not expected him to be so lifelike. The videos I’d watched online had not accounted for this responsiveness, an eagerness for touch that I had only ever witnessed in living things. When I petted him across the long sensor strip of his back, I could feel a gentle mechanical purr beneath the surface.

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I thought of the philosopher Martin Buber’s description of the horse he visited as a child on his grandparents’ estate, his recollection of “the element of vitality” as he petted the horse’s mane and the feeling that he was in the presence of something completely other – “something that was not I, was certainly not akin to me” –…

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