Over half of the people in western society spend their lives with pets and our shared history goes back tens of thousands of years. But, how will a technological revolution change this human-animal relationship?

Powered by artificial intelligence and made to resemble cats and dogs the robot pets of today are able to mimic live animals more naturally than ever before. The increasing urbanisation of the planet is likely to see animal lovers turning to robotic pets in the future as a more convenient and practical alternative for the modern age.

Dr. Jean-Loup Rault from University of Melbourne’s Animal Welfare Science Centre predicts that real pets will become a luxury possession only owned by a small percentage of the population able to fulfil their needs in terms of space, social and mental stimulation. He is reported as saying, “We are possibly witnessing the dawn of a new era, the digital revolution with likely effects on pet ownership, similar to the industrial revolution which replaced animal power for petrol and electrical engines.”

As a pet owner, it might be hard to believe that a robot could occupy the place in your heart where your dog or cat currently resides but research has shown that we react to robot pets in much the same was as real animals.

Sherry Turkle, anthropologist at MIT, conducted research published in 2004 looking at the ways children respond to smart toys like the Furby, Tamagotchi and Sony’s Aibo robot dog and found they were responding emotionally towards them. Turkle found that a culture shift has occurred over time. In the 1980s and 90s people she interviewed told her that love and friendship are connections that can only exist between humans. Now people often tell her that they believe robots could fulfil this role too. She concludes that humans are programmed to respond to creatures in a caring way, even if they are artificial.

The Tamagotchi digital pets were introduced in Japan in the 1990s and were originally designed for teenage girls to give them an idea about what it would be like to take care of children. All toys such as these require nurturing, which encourages children to take care of them and care about them. Some children have said they prefer these digital or robotic pets to actual cats and dogs because they do not grow old and die.

Turkle is quoted as saying, “People used to buy pets to teach their children about life and death and loss. We are now teaching kids that real living creatures are risky, while robots are safe.”

It is not only children that have become attached to robotic animals. The ability of humans to respond emotionally to robot pets has led to the use of robotic animals in hospitals, with the same therapeutic effects as pets used for animal therapy. The PARO robot seal pup displays emotional responses to external stimuli via a number of sensors on its body, and it is designed to have a positive psychological effect on the people who interact with it.

Through interaction, PARO gradually learns to develop a personality that its owners like. There are over a thousand of these robot seal pups being used in Japan alone, particularly with dementia patients as an alternative to sedatives.

Robotics company Boston Dynamics has produced some astounding robot dogs that walk just like the real thing on four legs, can run, climb stairs, balance on uneven terrain and even pick themselves up if they fall over.

Boston Dynamic’s SpotMini robot, which was unveiled in 2016, weighs about the same as the average Golden Retriever and can assist with housework such as loading the dishwasher. It looks like the pet of the future will have the ability to fulfil an owner’s emotional needs as well as becoming a household assistant. It will not require feeding, or cleaning up after, so will fit perfectly into people’s busy lives and small homes.

Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson believes that robots will become commonplace pets in the future. He says, “Cars have replaced horses. Home security systems have replaced guard dogs. Internet kittens are cuter than your kittens. Pooper-scooper laws are unnecessary for cuddly stuffed animals on your bed. And your pet bird should never have been kept in a cage to begin with. Robot pets are inevitable and possible overdue.”

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Dr Gordon Roberts

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