Robots might be the necessary future of urban pet ownership

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Robots might be the necessary future of urban pet ownership

We all love our pets. We love them a crazy, ridiculous amount that is often entirely out of proportion to reality: you don’t want to know how much I spent on medical care for my $5 pet store gerbil. As the world population grows and more people move into cities, it’s going to get increasingly difficult to afford to give larger pets (like cats and especially dogs) the life that they deserve in urban environments. Pets will be a luxury that wealthy people will be able to afford, but what about the rest of us? The answer is, as always, robots.

Jean-Loup Rault, a faculty member with the University of Melbourne’s Animal Welfare Science Centre, has an opinion piece in the open access journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science that discusses how pets will evolve in the digital age. Rault argues that “pet ownership in its current form is likely unsustainable in a growing, urbanized population,” but it’s obviously not realistic to suggest that we just abandon the meaningful relationships that we can make with animals.

However, over the last several centuries and millenia, the relationship that most people have with animals has transitioned from “that looks tasty” to “that’s my ride” to “that’s cute and snuggly.” The industrial revolution replaced horses with engines, because engines better served our needs. Is it crazy to think that the digital revolution could replace pet animals with pet robots for exactly the same reason?

Having a pet like a dog in an urban environment can certainly be difficult. Animals are expensive: most estimates put the average cost of owning a dog at between $1,000 and $2,000 per year. If you’re paying for someone to walk the dog, and for boarding if you go out of town, it’s even more. Dogs require lots of attention and a significant amount of your time, whether you have time to spare for them or not. And there’s also the question of whether it’s fair for social animals like dogs to leave them locked in a house or apartment alone most of the time.

On the other hand, pets give a (mostly) unlimited amount of love and attention and cuddles, and that’s priceless. Thing is, studies have shown that robots can fill a very similar, if not completely identical, emotional niche:

Children treat the AIBO robotic dog as if it was a living dog, and this does not vary by a child’s attachment to a pet at home or involvement in computer technology. Overall, robotic pets appear to elicit similar responses from humans as live pets, but it is unclear whether they stimulate identical responses and replace that need for a pet; notwithstanding that, scientists are still debating the function and benefits humans derive from (live) pets.

Plus, they don’t have upkeep costs or social needs of their own (although they could certainly simulate them, if you wanted them to), and if you’re going out of town, they’ll be fine on their own. In fact, they’ll even mind your place for you while you’re gone.

I know what you’re thinking: “No robot could ever replace the emotional fulfillment that I get from my pet.” And that’s certainly true. Nobody is suggesting otherwise. These sorts of shifts don’t happen overnight in the form of the digital police breaking down your door and swapping your dog with an Aibo. What’s more likely to happen is that you have a dog, but your kids, who want to live in the city, decide that a dog just doesn’t make sense. They miss having a dog, so they get a robot instead, and to them, it provides the same sense of emotional fulfillment:

If artificial pets can replicate the human benefits obtained from live pets, does that mean that the human–animal emotional bond is solely dependent on ourselves and the image that we project on a live or artificial interactive partner? Does it ethically matter if the benefits of keeping artificial pets outweight the risks, sparing other live pets’ potential animal welfare issues?

Rault doesn’t discuss to what extent the robots themselves (in hardware and software) will be able to emulate animals, but it doesn’t really matter. As he says above, humans are good at forming bonds with all kinds of things (living, robotic, or completely inanimate), and as technology improves, it’s only going to get easier. It’s possible, even probable, that the pets we have in the future won’t even resemble animals at all, but instead be unique companions that we custom design just for ourselves.

IEEE Spectrum