Could your next pet be a robot?

Can humans form the same attachment to robots that they do to animals? Several studies indicate they can.

Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters
Sony Corporation's two-legged walking robot SDR-4X dance and sing during a press preview at the ROBODEX2002, a robot exhibition, held in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, March 27, 2002. The four-day exhibition will be opened to the public from Thursday.

The next step in artificial intelligence technology may be robot pets, at least according to one animal welfare researcher at the University of Melbourne.

In a paper published in the latest edition of the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, Dr. Jean-Loup Rault argues that, as the world becomes more populated, pets will become impractical. Those who cannot afford real pets may turn to robotic alternatives.

"It's not a question of centuries from now,” Dr. Rault wrote in his paper. “If 10 billion human beings live on the planet in 2050 as predicted, it's likely to occur sooner than we think. If you'd described Facebook to someone 20 years ago, they'd think you were crazy. But we are already seeing people form strong emotional bonds with robot dogs in Japan.”

Historically, robots have been created for work – fulfilling tasks that were dirty, dangerous, or dull. However, since the 1990s, when Tamagotchi and the Sony AIBO became popular, they have also functioned as toys. These precursors paved the way for the transition from toy to pet and point to human’s ability to connect with a robot.

"Robots can, without a doubt, trigger human emotions," Rault wrote. "If artificial pets can produce the same benefits we get from live pets, does that mean that our emotional bond with animals is really just an image that we project on to our pets?"

Rault also suggests that if humans learn to care about robotic companions – which don’t have needs like food, water and exercise – it may change the way we care about, and for, each other.

In 2008, study conducted by researchers at Saint Louis University showed that Sony's AIBO robot dog was just as effective at soothing and alleviating loneliness in elderly people as real dogs are. These findings lead to the development of products like Paro, a soft robotic baby seal used for therapeutic purposes.

Since Sony discontinued AIBO in 2006, an entire industry has popped up around repairing the digital pets for owners who see them not as objects, but as members of their family. This is evident by the elaborate funerals held in honor of those AIBOs that could not be fixed.

Even if robopets do not become the norm, socially capable robots are definitely catching on. A team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers designed a home robot called JIBO, which they are marketing as filling a role somewhere between family member and possession. Likewise, several Japanese engineers are building humanoid robots that function as either friends for those who don’t have other options, or extensions of oneself.

This trend shows more than the potential future of pet ownership. Rather than the unfeeling machines we feared would someday be our overlords, the future of robotic technology may lie in companionship

"When engineers work on robotic dogs, they work on social intelligence, they address what people need from their dogs: companionship, love, obedience, dependence," Rault wrote. "They want to know everything about animal behaviour so they can replicate it as close as possible to a real pet."

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