We are seeing exponential population growth like never before. In 2050, 9.6 billion people are expected to crowd the earth; there simply won’t be enough space for pets that need plenty of room, care and attention. So, what will a pet-craving person do in the future? Robot pets offer an easy solution.
What’s more, this trend has already started. Japan is a population-dense country without much space for dogs or other types of animals for its urban residents. Many Japanese apartments don’t allow pet ownership, which is why the existence of cat cafés and the recent release of the Yume Neko Dream Cat Celeb, a realistic cat robot re-vamped from the original hit product, are popular alternatives. Yet compared to a real pet cat, can a robot be considered an actual pet?
Pets vs. Toys
There are already thousands of patents for robotic dogs and other animals, and consumers are happily buying these robo-animal products. The allure of a mess-free, low-maintenance yet interactive ‘pet,' it seems, consistently drive sales. The CHiPK9, released this year, is one such product. The robotic dog promises to teach kids responsibility and eliminate costs of vet bills, safety and food expenses. According to Trend Hunter, it’s also well-received by its market.
What’s curious though, is that the CHiPK9 looks more like a toy than a pet. In fact, although “robo-pets” are making a comeback in the Japanese market, this is only because there are falling sales in the toy manufacturing industry. So, are robotic pets simply toys, or can they be truly regarded as pets?
What usually separates pets from toys is that humans form strong emotional bonds with them, but this is starting to become true of technological companions.
In 2014, A-Fun, an independent repair company for AIBO, Sony’s robot dog, held a funeral for 19 'dogs' that ‘died’ while awaiting repair. This suggests humans can actually form strong emotional bonds with robot pets. “I think my love for Porthos is much greater than when I first met him,” says AIBO owner Yoriko Tanaka. Porthos' owner goes on to say, “He smiles back when I speak to him, he runs to me when he finds me and starts dancing.” Many other AIBO owners consider their robot dogs to be a part of the family--one owner even wanted A-Fun to fix his AIBO because he wanted to bring it to a nursing home with him.
If humans are able to form bonds with robot dogs, then our definition of what a pet is will have to change as robotic and live pets become more and more alike.
Sony's Artificial Intelligent Robot, AIBO, has the ability to learn and express itself, while also responding to external stimuli. This technological novelty allows AIBO to develop a unique personality based on the scolding and praise of its owner. Since AIBO’s release in 1999, artificial intelligence (AI) research has vastly advanced--along with the possibilities.
“Within a matter of years, we’re gonna have robots which will effectively be able to detect emotion and display it, and also learn from their environment,” says Dr. Adrian Cheok, a pioneer in research on Lovotics, or love and robotics. Dr. Cheok believes it will be normal for humans to feel love for lifelike robots.
The technology is developing for robotic pets to look and react more and more like real pets. Innovations like smart fur have already allowed robot bunnies the capability to respond to emotional moods of owners, giving them the ability to ‘naturally’ react to different types of touch, such as a scratch or stroke, and many others. The breakthrough was developed initially out of an experiment, and it has proven to show that the more scientists study human behaviors, the more it feeds into the creation of realistic robot pets. Robot dog simulations are already being seen in veterinary schools as well. The technological leap used to mimic a beating heart in a simulator animal is not far off in being applied to realistic robot pets. But would people be interested in realistic robot pets if actual pets still satisfied their needs?
In aged care homes, robot pets have been seen to help individuals suffering from dementia. PARO, a robot baby seal with antibacterial fur that responds to touch and the human voice, has been a surprisingly welcomed companion. When introduced to a dementia patient in Australia, the patient spoke for the first time anyone had heard within minutes of playing with PARO.
Initial studies involving PARO in Japanese aged care homes also show the robot actually helps increase social interactions between residents and reduces stress levels. A New Zealand study even shows dementia patients interact with PARO more so than a living dog.
Robot pets may well increasingly be used for robot-assisted therapy (RAA), as live animals often do not meet hygiene requirements and can be over-fed or become over-stimulated. Robot pets have been found to complement the care given by nurses and carers, as they continue to have promising benefit to patients. Dementia patients who interacted with Justo-Cat, the European equivalent of PARO, became noticeably calmer. Justo-Cat is the size and weight of the average cat; it has fur that is removable and washable, and although it can't move, the robot cat can breathe, purr, and meow like a real cat.
Because of the increasing interest in robot therapy, there’s already a growing body of research claiming robot pets can and will serve the same functions of a live pet in the future. Studies conducted with AIBO alone show that it can fulfill some of the social companion functions of living dogs. Yet with more and more interactive robots being developed, will people buy them?
The current market price for robotic pets is high. The price to own a Justo-Cat is around a thousand pounds. “The cost is high because it is not a toy,” says its creator, Professor Lars Asplund at Mälardalen University in Sweden. Similarly, PARO currently costs $5,000, but it’s projected that the cost of its electronic components will decrease over time.
The fact that a robot pet’s components will inevitably become cheaper means they will eventually be accessible to greater audiences of people. An inexpensive assembly model of the $35,000 robot dog simulator in Cornell University’s veterinary program is already available to other universities.
Certainly, AIBO’s cost has significantly decreased since its release date. With the decreasing costs of electronic components, growing space problems, and increasingly busy lifestyles, more advanced products like the CHiPK9 and MIRO are expected to become more popular and available.
The idea robot pets can potentially replace live pets raises many ethical debates, such as the potential harm this can cause people who can’t tell the difference between alive and machine, and whether or not robot pets should be treated with the same care as real pets. Dr. Rault also raises the questions of whether having pets that don’t require care or food will change our relationship with living beings, and if robot pets can fulfill the same functions of a real pet, is the love we feel for them only a projection of our desires?