Whether you’re a cat person, a dog person or a bird person, it’s safe to say that everyone’s had or wanted at least one pet at some point in their life. There’re many different kinds of pets, meaning that the true definition of a pet’s becoming less and less clear as time goes on.
In a recent journal, “Frontiers in Veterinary Science,” a pet is defined as, “A domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility.” This means that any animal that we keep around for emotional purposes can be considered a pet. However, this definition has evolved so drastically that pet owners now consider their pets to be members of the family.
After conducting a recent survey, 68% of people say they treat their pets as well as they treat their children. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the pet industry’s worth billions with products in grooming, animal daycare/obedience schools, clothes, food and much more. In 2014 alone, the pet industry brought in $56 billion, and this year it’s predicted to rise to $60 billion.
According to Jean-Loup Rault, a staff member at the University of Melbourne’s Animal Welfare Centre, the pet industry will eventually decline. Rault believes that there are problems arising for pet owners. Rault says that “pet ownership in its current form is likely unsustainable in a growing urbanized population.” In other words, the more our cities grow, the less room there is, which means that pets may be the first creatures to go.
Pets are a huge part of life for man people, so what’s the solution to this crisis? If we look at the current trend in the scientific world, the development of artificial intelligence may be able to save the existence of pets. The question everyone seems to be asking is, what can we replace with robots?
Pet ownership has been scientifically proven to have many benefits. For one, pet ownership teaches children responsibility. Think back to your first pet. You had to feed, walk and clean up after your pet. Taking care of a pet was your first lesson in learning to care for something other than yourself.
A strong, emotional bond also develops between pets and their owners. Scientists have discovered that the hormone oxytocin, better known as the “love hormone,” is activated in people during pet ownership. Oxytocin is known to have several behavioural benefits.
Inga Neumann, from the faculty of Biology and Preclinical Medicine at the University of Regensburg says, “Oxytocin has an impact on pro-social behaviors that contribute to relaxation, trust and psychological stability.”
Since animals have evolved from food to pet to family member, perhaps the next step for animals is the evolution to robotics. The hospitality industry in Japan has already started to be taken over by artificial intelligence with the Henn-na Hotel, which is a hotel run by AI staff. If we can use artificial intelligence to provide a better quality of service to customers, who’s to say that AI can’t be used to improve our relationship with man’s best friend?
If you’re a child of the 90’s, robotic pets might sound familiar to you. You may remember the Tamagotchi: a device that stored a virtual pet. These hand held electronic toys provided you with a strong sense of responsibility without providing the real consequences of your selfish neglect towards the pet. You fed your Tamagotchi, you loved your Tamagotchi and you had minutes of joy before its neediness set in. You then bought into another fad: Aibo.
Aibo, a robotic, toy dog released in 1999, was Sony’s escapade into the world of robotic dogs. Although interest in Aibo wasn’t popular for very long, this robotic dog had the ability to identify objects and people. The Aibo could even go through your email while reading it aloud, which a real dog could never do. Aibo was a big hit in Japan; however, the manufacturing service was discontinued in 2006.
The memory of Aibo pets lives on in New York at the Museum of Modern Art and you can still find some Aibo owners in Japan. Maintenance services have, however, also been discontinued for Aibo dogs, meaning that the pets can’t be repaired once broken.
The Risk of AI
With the AI trend becoming popular again, more questions are being raised about the safeness of AI products by people other than your local conspiracy theorists. Stephen Hawking told the BBC his fears that the development of artificial intelligence, “Would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow, biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded."
What if our robotic dogs become smarter than we are? If these robots do achieve a higher level of intelligence, will they one day turn on us? As we lay asleep in our beds, must we lay with one eye open? Imagine having to keep a constant eye on Spoticus 3000, making sure he’s not plotting an animatronic canine takeover with the other pets on your street. Will Earth one day be turned into Planet of the Dogs?
But how can we be so sure? The technology simply doesn’t exist for that type of takeover. Rollo Carpenter, Managing Director of Existor Ltd., who develops AI for entertainment, companionship, education and communication, is a little less cynical than Hawking. Carpenter says, “We are a long way from having the computing power or developing the algorithms needed to achieve full artificial intelligence.” He also says that “we will remain in charge of the technology for a decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of the world problems will be realised.”
In a recent study, children were asked to play Happy Farm, a Virtual Reality game where humans care for virtual farm animals. The children were then asked to play with a stuffed dog toy after playing the farm game. When asked about the stuffed dog, the children referred to it as a friend. When asked about the Virtual Reality animals, the children viewed the farm animals as nothing more than entertainment.
Robotic pets with artificial intelligence may not be able to fully replace a real animal, but there’s no denying that robotic pets would open up access to pet ownership. By being hypoallergenic, robotic pets would allow people with allergies to experience pet ownership without reacting to animal fur. In addition, people who live in urban areas will have access to quiet pets, perfect for having a pet without disturbing other guests.
It’s also necessary to note that humans tend to outlive their companions. With pets that have artificial intelligence, humans would have a lifelong companion. The next step after robotic pets could involve combining the AI pet models with all animals. As species die off, we could genetically engineer other animals that walk the earth, giving them an eternal existence. Extinction would be a thing of the past.
A robotic pet with AI would give you a lot less mess to clean up and less expenses to pay for than a real pet. Whether owning a pet with AI is good or bad, you can’t say it wouldn’t be cool to own an animatronic pet.