Robopets, the future of owning cats and dogs?

13 May 2015

An Australian researcher has argued that digital, electronic pets are the future, as the world runs out of space, time and need for those annoyingly loyal and cute little cats and dogs. Well, dogs.

Citing the rise of Japanese ownership of robot dogs, and the swathe of patents already created for robopets, Dr Jean-Loup Rault thinks it’s just a matter of time before us urbanised folk ditch the hounds.

The University of Melbourne animal welfare researcher thinks the dawn of a population raised entirely in modern technology will make the switch from organic pets to digital ones not such a huge leap.

“It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation,” Rault said.

Pets in the digital age: live, robot, or virtual?

In his now published paper Rault discusses three potential changes to pet ownership: refinement of how we handle our pets, a reduction in the number of pets or the total replacement by robots.

Some very interesting arguments are put forward, pointing out that we are, indeed, undergoing a shift in our attitude towards pet ownership. But the robot substitution, clearly, caught our eye.

“It’s not a question of centuries from now. If 10 billion human beings live on the planet in 2050 as predicted, it’s likely to occur sooner than we think.”

Here’s an immediate flaw. This overpopulation lark is trotted out by many a person nowadays and it often misses the point: overpopulation has less to do with personal space, and more to do with resources.

More people on the planet does not mean we won’t fit down our avenues without elbowing some stranger in the gut, it means we need more resources to satisfy the numbers.

Food, water and shelter

Pointing to resources, so, is far more important, and it’s something Rault does go into, briefly.

“For some people, the only interaction with their pet is restricted to providing food and water and no other forms of social interaction,” he says.

Now, if the cost of owning a pet was to skyrocket, then that would certainly see pet numbers plummet. But rather than get bogged down in that quagmire, Rault instead looks at the fascinating evolution of modern technology.

“If you’d described Facebook to someone 20 years ago, they’d think you were crazy,” he says of our changing attitude towards communication, which is clearly one key reason, or benefit, of owning a pet.

Could these be our future pets? Via Shutterstock

Could these be our future pets? Via Shutterstock

“But we are already seeing people form strong emotional bonds with robot dogs in Japan. Pet robotics has come a long way from the Tamagotchi craze of the mid-90s. In Japan, people are becoming so attached to their robot dogs that they hold funerals for them when the circuits die.”

This, again, seems strange as a comparison. It’s almost like saying there will soon be a shortage of celeriac because the UK version of Masterchef keeps including it in meals. It’s such a niche, acute sample that any comparison or geographical transportation of the argument falls apart.

A scary thought

“Of course we care about live animals, but if we become used to a robotic companion that doesn’t need food, water or exercise, perhaps it will change how humans care about other living beings,” he says, before discussing the remarkable advances in aritificial intelligence.

This will no doubt play a key role in the development of robotic animals, but could it really replace what currently exists? Have current robots replaced man?

“When engineers work on robotic dogs, they work on social intelligence, they address what people need from their dogs: companionship, love, obedience, dependence,” he said.

“They want to know everything about animal behaviour so they can replicate it as close as possible to a real pet.”

And what about robotic cats? “Well, that’s a little harder because you have to make them unpredictable,” he concluded.

What’s entirely more likely, though, is pet ownership will turn infinitely more technological, while keeping the standard pets.

So we’ll have cameras on our dogs, lasers entertaining our cats while we work, and fitness trackers to stop them turning into fat messes.

Puppy and robot image, via Sara Fasullo on Flickr

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic