Children treat robotic dogs in the same way as real ones - but is that good or bad?

Robotic pets set to replace real furry friends in the future

Real animals could be replaced by robotic pets as human companions as the demands of living in an overpopulated world would make it hard for people to provide for them, a researcher has predicted.

Jean-Loup Rault, a researcher from the University of Melbourne, proposed his future-vision for domestic pets in an article published in the latest edition of Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

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

"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. If you'd described Facebook to someone 20 years ago, they'd think you were crazy.”

The idea of a robotic pet is already taking off in Japan, the birthplace of the simplistic Tamagotchi electronic pets of the 1990s. Since then, the technology has come a long way.

"In Japan, people are becoming so attached to their robot dogs that they hold funerals for them when the circuits die," Rault remarked.

"Robots can, without a doubt, trigger human emotions," Rault added. "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?"

Already used in medical settings to harness the psychological and social benefits of interaction with real pets, robotic animals don’t need to be fed, don’t litter and their characters and behaviour can be programmed to the liking of the owner – something many would perceive as a major advantage.

On the other hand, robotic pets replacing the real living creatures could have far-reaching consequences. Animal abuse is still common in today’s society, so it would not be a stretch to imagine what could happen once people get used to programmable pets.

"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," Rault remarked.

It has been observed that children interacting with Sony’s AIBO robotic pet dog treat the machine in the same way they would handle a real dog. In the USA, the Paro robotic seal has been successfully used in therapy for medical patients.

"You won't find a lot of research on pet robotics out there, but if you Google robot dogs, there are countless patents,” said Rault. “Everyone wants to get ahead of this thing because there is a market and it will take off in the next 10 to 15 years."

With the advancements in Artificial Intelligence research, it is likely that future robotic dogs would be able to replicate an even more realistic experience than current robotic creatures.

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

"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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