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The Pet of the Future

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The Pet of the Future

Are you the type of person who would love a dog but are not sure you could handle the responsibility? Maybe you live in an apartment, or your work hours might leave Rex home alone all day. If you find yourself watching wistfully as dog and dog owner stroll past, only to look away as the same dog squats and his owner reaches for a small plastic bag, then the  problem is that modern life stands between you and what could be your best friend.  The answer, in the future, may come  in the form of robotic dogs. Dr Jean-Loup Rault, animal welfare officer for the University of Melbourne, believes artificial companions will soon be part of our everyday lives. “It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation.”

Writing in the latest edition of ‘Frontiers in Veterinary Science’ Dr Rault goes on to say “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. But we are already seeing people form strong emotional bonds with robot dogs in Japan.”

Inevitably, Japan leads the way in tales of social isolation and techno- strangeness and so it proves here “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.”

Dog lovers may recoil from all this and question how metal and plastic can seriously compete with a living creature. However, Dr Rault believes this cannot be dismissed as a fad, but is set to become part of our future lives “You won’t find a lot of research on pet robotics out there, but if you Google robot dogs, there are countless patents. 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.”

The doctor is clearly confident that robotic dogs and virtual pets are the shape of things to come but, as an animal welfare officer, his main concern is the effect this may have on our relationship with 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”.

Dr Rault also believes the rise of the robots casts a doubt on present relationship with are animal companions. “Robots can, without a doubt, trigger human emotions”, he ads “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?” If you doubt there might be something to this, think about how you felt about your childhood teddy bear. For many this must surely be a nightmare vision of the future, people stacked high in rabbit hutch living spaces with nothing to aim their love onto but the blank canvas of artificial creatures.  Even if you do have the good fortune to have a strip of lawn and a real live animal the question will remain “I know I love Rex, but does Rex really love me back”?

It’s not possible to be truly confident when predicting the future, except that in large parts of the world, such as the sprawling mega cities of the Far East, this future has already arrived.  In spite of this, dog ownership is on the rise. In Brazil 85% of people live in densely populated cities like Rio De Janeiro, but, in spite of this, it is home to a vast canine population. Brazil has the world’s highest, per capita, number of small dogs, 20 million in total. So, it seems while are cities are expanding, dogs are shrinking. Perhaps the future lies not in robotic pets but genetically modified micro dogs.

The question of, to what extent we project our own feelings on to our pets, is the subject of a great deal of scientific debate. Recent research has shown that, when you and  your dog lock eyes, you are both likely to experience a boost in the ‘love hormone’ Oxytocin. Perhaps, in some future time, we will imagine our robo pets feel the same way about us as we do about them, but in the here and now, it seems the love between man and a man’s best friend is a very real thing.

The assumption is that the robots will stay as they are now, cleverly made but essentially lifeless pieces of metal. What if this was to change?  The technology could evolve so that at some future date robotic dogs will have a more developed form of artificial intelligence. Dr Rault seems to think so. “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. The essential word here is “replicate”. Maybe one day they really will spark into life and learn to think and respond on their own, but until that day, a robot might learn to act like a living creature, but an act is all it will ever be.

The Doctor is not so sure of  Robo Cats. “Well, that’s a little harder because you have to make them unpredictable.”






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