Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Will Robots Replace Pets?

OK -- no robot is this monstrously adorable. Not even WALL-E. | Julija/iStock/Thinkstock
OK -- no robot is this monstrously adorable. Not even WALL-E. | Julija/iStock/Thinkstock

In the previous week's video, we talked about the possibility of robot pets, looking beyond cute toys like Sony's AIBO line (1999 to 2006) or even the really intriguing Pleo dinosaur. I wanted to follow up on one particular question that came out of the conversation: Will robotic pets ever replace living, breathing pets?

I think it's obvious that past toys like AIBO or Pleo couldn't do that. To see some of these existing robots in action, check out Lauren's blog post where she rounds up videos of some of the more interesting examples from the past decade or so. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm imagining a robust simulation of any animal - cat, dog, guinea pig, Dimetrodon - one that is such a good simulation it's near-indistinguishable from life in terms of its appearance and behavior.

Now, it should go without saying that as good as some of today's electronic pets are, we are pretty far from convincingly lifelike robotic animals. We would require major advances in things like robot locomotion, artificial intelligence, the "cuddle factor" and, significantly, a reasonable price range. We go into more detail about these considerations in our podcast about robotic pets.

But even assuming that we were to accomplish near-perfect simulation of a live animal, many of us (myself included) would probably never feel like a robot was an appropriate replacement for a real dog or cat.

Personally, I love dogs, and part of the reason I love dogs is that they love me back. I don't mean simply that I enjoy the external appearance of bonding behaviors-I enjoy the knowledge that there is an actual experience taking place within the dog's brain that mirrors my affection and attachment. It's the knowledge of conscious reciprocation that makes the pet-owner relationship meaningful in the same way our relationships with other people are meaningful, and different from the kind of relationship you'd have with a favorite piece of furniture or art. And unless we want to get into the question of whether a robot will ever be capable of a conscious experience, that reciprocation is something a robot can't supply, no matter how well it simulates the outward appearance of life. So I don't think live pets ever will be replaced by machines.

In that case, why even entertain the idea of a technologically simulated domestic animal? I want to discuss a few reasons below.

While not replacing a live animal, a robotic animal could provide some of the benefits of pet companionship, in the long term or in the short term, in situations where having a live pet would be difficult or impossible for either the pet or the owner.

1.) They can go places real animals can't or shouldn't. In the video, we mentioned airplanes - a place where it really doesn't make sense to give total free rein to live animals. Flying is stressful enough without having somebody's cat leaping claws-out toward your face or a dog running up and down the aisles taking bites out of people's in-flight meals. But a robotic pet with predictable (read: programmable) behavior should be no problem on an airplane. It could be counted on to reduce your stress rather than compound it. But I think it's also worth mentioning hospitals. Therapy animals have often been employed in a medical context, and it's well known that simply interacting with a pet for a short period of time can have measurable medical benefits, such as lowering anxiety and encouraging a beneficial distribution of hormones. But most hospitals that allow pet therapy place lots of rules and restrictions on the practice for very understandable reasons of hygiene and safety. A robotic therapy animal could provide at least some of those same benefits to hospital or care facility patients without having to jump through all of the hoops of confirming cleanliness, social behavior, etc.

2.) They can provide companionship for people who would have problems with real animals. What if you love dogs or cats, but are extremely allergic? This is a problem that should be familiar enough to many. Or what if you are trying to get over a fear of a particular animal? One treatment for any specific phobia - for example cynophobia, the persistent fear of dogs - is what's known as exposure therapy, which means exposing the person to the object of his or her phobia (or at least an image of it, mental or external) for set periods of time, until they become desensitized to their fear. It seems to me that part of what causes the fear of a live animal like a dog is its unpredictable behavior. A programmable and predictable robot might provide a really helpful mid-way stepping stone for exposure therapy: First, exposure to a predictable simulated dog, and second, exposure to a real one.

3.) They can provide some of the benefits of animal companionship for people who can't provide the care a real animal needs. Live animals deserve to be treated well. Social animals like dogs need huge amounts of love and attention, but no matter what kind of animal it is, there will be chores and maintenance tasks that the owner needs to execute in order to keep the pet healthy and happy - in other words, to provide the animal a good quality of life. Some pets need lots of exercise, like daily walks or runs. All pets will need to be fed on a schedule appropriate to their species and breed. Pets will need bathing, grooming and healthcare. But for various reasons, many people won't be able to provide all of these things. If you're a very busy person who isn't home very often, it isn't fair to leave a dog alone by itself for most of its life. If you live in an apartment building or have limited mobility, it might not be feasible for you to give an animal the exercise it needs, to feed it on a regular schedule, to bathe it or to take it out for important medical care. In these cases, a robotic simulation of a pet could provide some of the companionship, stress reduction and health benefits of a live animal without compromising a real animal's quality of life.

So do I think an artificial animal will ever be a perfect replacement for a live pet? Absolutely not. But could they still be wonderful for many jobs? In my mind, there's no doubt. I see the future of robotic pets not as a substitution for our relationship with living creatures, but as a more narrowly targeted resource for situations where having a real animal presence would be impractical or unethical.

What do you think? Does the idea of a robotic pet, no matter how cute and lifelike, make your skin crawl? Or could you see a robotic pet being useful in a narrow range of circumstances? Or are you a full-on Futurenator who would actually rather have a robot by your side than a low-tech live animal? Feel free to leave a comment and join the discussion.

More to Explore