The Aibo, an iconic robotic pet designed and manufactured by Sony.

Redefining man's best friend

Are Fido’s days set to be numbered in an over-populated future world where robodog will replace man’s (and woman’s) best friend?

A shared evolution spanning thousands of years may come to an abrupt halt if new research from the University of Melbourne is to be believed. As reported in E&T, this research suggests that owning real pets will become a luxury in an over-populated future world, and the answer lies in robotic pets.

Is this a grim glimpse into Earth’s dystopian future, an idea reminiscent of Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, or does animal welfare researcher Dr Jean-Loup Rault have a point? His paper, in the latest edition of Frontiers in Veterinary Science, agues that robopets could well replace the real thing in households worldwide in as little as ten years’ time, as our infatuation with technology grows and more people migrate to high-density city living.

In Philip K Dick’s vision, the basis for the 1982 film epic 'Blade Runner', the remains of a radiation-addled human populace live in dense, decaying cities in a post-apocalyptic near-future where animals are rare. To own and keep a live animal is a sign of status, but many people turn to the much cheaper synthetic, or ‘electric’, animals to keep up the pretence.

“It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation,” Dr Rault said. “If 10 billion human beings live on the planet in 2050 as predicted, it’s likely to occur sooner than we think.”

Capacity for love

Dr Rault embarked on the research after discovering a huge lack of information about how technology may influence our relationships with animals in the future. With words that seem to echo the film’s storyline, he suggests that with the growing potential of robotic technology coupled with advances in artificial intelligence we will come to think of robot pets, as well as those kept in virtual reality, as a social norm. “We are already seeing people form strong emotional bonds with robot dogs in Japan,” he added.

Indeed, we’ve come a long way since the Tamagotchi craze of the mid-1990s. In Japan last year a mass funeral was held for a number of Sony Aibo dogs whose owners had developed deep attachments to them. In his paper, Dr Rault suggests that we could be forced to “update the definition of pets as an animal or an artificial device kept for pleasure”.

Meaning ‘pal’ or ‘partner’ in Japanese, Aibo is an iconic series of robotic pets designed and manufactured by Sony and introduced in May 1999, with new models released every year until 2005. Marketed for domestic use as entertainment robots, Aibos had working joints, a microphone and speakers allowing them to respond to simple commands. In addition, other characteristics were specifically designed to encourage an emotional bond in the human ‘owner’; these included a sensor for touching, the ability to hear and recognise its name, a limited ability to see pink objects, vocalisations to express ‘mood’, and a set of predetermined actions such as walking, paw shaking and ball-chasing.

However, what really sets Aibos apart is our seeming readiness to attribute our relationships with them the same behaviours and characteristics we do to relationships with real dogs. In short, what really made Aibos resemble real dogs was not their shape or their behaviour, but their owners' capacity to love them.

Research shows that people tend to give Aibo a status of its own, somewhere between an animal and an object. A paper published in 2009 in the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues’ flagship journal, Journal of Social Issues, revealed that ‘hybrid’ perceptions and behaviours about Aibo emerged in people during interactions. In ‘Robotic pets in human lives: implications for the human–animal bond and for human relationships with personified technologies’, the authors demonstrated through their studies that the robotic dog was treated as a technological artefact that also embodied attributes of living animals, such as having mental states, being a social other, and having moral standing.

From July 2014, Sony ceased all customer support and repairs for its Aibo products, a withdrawal which has paved the way for the strange and unprecedented ritual of the robopet funeral.

Double-edged sword

So, the prospect might not be as far-fetched as we think. Robots have been finding their way into our lives and our homes for a few years now, from robotic vacuum cleaners and self-cleaning, automatic cat litter boxes to robotic toys and entertainment/therapy robots like Aibo, above, and Paro, the robotic baby seal currently being used in the USA as a therapy aid for medical patients. In addition, there are the hugely successful virtual worlds, where people can own animals. At the height of its success, HappyFarm, with its rolling acres of crops and herds of animals sweeping majestically across the plains, saw 23 million users every day.

However, Dr Rault warns that the emergence of robotic pets is a double-edged sword. In the first instance, what’s not to like? None of these animals, either robotic or virtual, are likely to poop on your carpet, rip off your arm or trigger an allergic reaction, for now anyway. But a rise in our dependence on a robot for companionship raises serious ethical questions. As an animal welfare researcher, Dr Rault is particularly interested in whether a surge in popularity of disposable fake pets could lead to a shift in how humanity treats animals.

“Robots can, without a doubt, trigger human emotions,” Dr 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 we project on to our pets?”

Secret robot house

But just how do we go about understanding something as intangible as how ordinary people get along with robots in everyday life? Well, the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group has been studying human/robot interaction, amongst other things, since 2000.

Adaptive systems are systems that adapt via learning, evolution, development or via more subtle kinds of interaction, especially involving social interaction and/or embodiment. The group’s best kept secret could well hold the key to answering some of Dr Rault’s ethical questions.

In an ordinary residential street in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, a seemingly normal house is situated. Purchased ten years ago by the group’s founder, Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, with the sole purpose of observing robots in a domestic setting, this is no ordinary house. Robot vacuums, dogs and simplistic humanoid children are regular visitors. Two prototype ‘care robots’ are there to carry out basic tasks and human visitors are monitored for signs of pre-programmed unusual activity. Fitted with multiple sensors, the domestic smart house has allowed Professor Dautenhahn and her team to take their robots out of the laboratory and have them ‘living’ in the more realistic environment of a home.

The research has enabled the team to investigate, specifically, how humans interact with robots of different appearances and behaviour, and how a robotic ‘mind’ can migrate to other robots or computer devices. The consequences of such research will inform the development of companion robots that can not only serve as useful assistants in the home, but that also behave in a manner that is socially acceptable and comfortable to its users.

With an ageing population the benefits of these technologies are obvious; care or assistance robots to undertake basic lifting and carrying tasks and a home that monitors the activities of its inhabitants to detect if someone has fallen ill or injured themselves. But what seems to trouble Dr Rault is what happens when such domestic robots of the future “feature bona-fide artificial intelligence and could learn to think and respond on their own”. Which gets us back to the tricksy relationship between human and robot.

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

I, robodog…

Whilst Aibo, Paro and Teksta et al aren’t likely to pass the TuringTest any time soon, we could say that Dr Rault’s disquiet about how humans interact with robot pets provides a microcosm for the wider issues and questions arising within the context of humans and artificial intelligence.

Is the technology for realistic, artificially intelligent robots, pets or otherwise, developing faster than our ability to answer the ethical questions it raises or our capacity to predict its outcomes? In the spectre of 'Blade Runner' and other works of fiction we have, for years, sought to provide answers that for now remain unknowable. Only time will tell…

Anyway, I’m just off out to walk my pooping, scratching, butt-sniffing, living, breathing dog.

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