Animal welfare researcher Dr. Jean-Loup Rault says the prospect of robopets is not as far-fetched as we may think, and may have potential impact on how we view actual animals.
Recent research explaining the power of "puppy dog eyes" revealed that gazing into the peepers of man’s best friend actually boosts levels of the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin. Could the same happen if those eyes were a configuration of electronic parts? Likely any dog lover who knows the joy of an actual real live warm and breathing dog will beg to differ, but animal welfare researcher Dr. Jean-Loup Rault has just published a paper arguing that virtual pets may be in order.
Rault bases this proposition on the idea that in an overpopulated world – presumably one in which resources are increasingly limited – live pets will soon become a luxury. In their place, chips and circuits that mimic the real thing.
"It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation," Rault, who works at the University of Melbourne, says.
"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,” he says. “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.
"Pet robotics has come a long way from the Tamagotchi craze of the mid-90s. In Japan, people are becoming so attached to their robot dogs that they hold funerals for them when the circuits die," he adds.
After searching for information on how technology may affect our relationships with animals in the future, Rault found that very little research had been undertaken on the topic, leading him to take a closer look.
"You won't find a lot of research on pet robotics out there, but if you Google robot dogs, there are countless patents,” he says. “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."
But robotic pets are not without their dark side, he cautions. They can help people who have pet allergies, too little space, are in the hospital, or have fears about real animals, but the ethics of robot companion animals begs many an ethical question.
"Robots can, without a doubt, trigger human emotions," Rault says. "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?"
With animal welfare as his main area of research (thank you, good Doctor) Rault is particularly interested in how increased popularity of toss-away faux pets could lead to a shift in how we regard real animals.
"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."
And while the concept sounds so … unsatisfying, Rault says robopets of the future could could come with true Artificial Intelligence and could learn to think and respond on their own.
"When engineers work on robotic dogs, they work on social intelligence, they address what people need from their dogs: companionship, love, obedience, dependence," he says.
"They want to know everything about animal behavior so they can replicate it as close as possible to a real pet."
But that’s dogs, what about robotic kitties? "Well, that's a little harder because you have to make them unpredictable," he concludes.