The August 2015 issue of Popular Science suggests that replacing real cuddliness with robotic companionship may be merely a matter of perspective.
Arguing that robot pets "have a leg up" on the natural variety of pet most of us know from our childhood requires little more than reviewing the many drawbacks of real pets: slobbering, noisy, shedding, rambunctious -- the list goes on. After a short survey of the robotic pet trend, Breanna Draxler concludes:
"For those who grew up with living, breathing, slobbering pets, the mechanical kind might not do. But for kids who constantly engage with smart technology, extending that connection to a robot dog or dino just might be the next logical step."
Kids give their stuffed toys names and even personalities; it is certainly a formative stage in the growth of their ability to make emotional alliances. The ability of humans to form connections with inanimate objects cannot be denied.
As artificial intelligence improves, robotic pets may gain the ability to mimic true empathy as well, further ingratiating themselves with their human companions. Already we have seen the depth of attachments possible: When Sony killed its robotic dog Aibo (discontinued support for repairs in non-anthropomorphic language), Japanese dog lovers held funerals for their robotic pets. The Make Blog suggested Sony should open source Aibo when the company lost interest, which would certainly be the more "humane" option.
But what are the impacts of growing up with robotic pets? No potty place may seem like a boon to the gardener, but not having to walk the dog means not learning responsibility for the welfare of others, not getting a nice bit of exercise, or missing that sunset because you didn't make time to get outside. The perceptions that we can replace nature with technology might also take a toll on the commitment of those kids to take action as adults to conserve nature. Is trying to connect our kids to nature a losing battle?
Or will it go the opposite direction: will kids raised with robot pets lead the way in protecting the planet with technology -- using ideas that are showing success such as cameras in rhino horns or drones to track endangered species? What do you think?