Will Robot Pets Replace Real Dogs and Cats? Will advances in artificial intelligence and robotics lead to a decrease in pet ownership? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of AI or robotic pets? I went to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to find out.
A Brief History of Robot Pets
Robot pets have been featured in science fiction for decades. Toy pets have captured the popular imagination over the past 20 years, with some products achieving incredible success. In November 1996, the Tamagotchi (Japanese for “egg” “watch”) was released and has sold over 76 million of these “handheld digital pets” worldwide.
There are numerous studies proving humans can make strong emotional bonds with robots and computer programs. And, of course, there are Furby’s.
In 1998, the Furby was released as the first “electronic robot toy.” Over 40 million of these pet toys sold from 1998-2001.
Ten years later, in 2008, ZhuZhu Pets, a “plush robotic hamster toy” was released. Touted as “the adorable robotic hamsters that don’t poop, die or stink,” they sold over 70 million ZhuZhu Pets in four years, totaling over $2 billion in sales.
Sony released its AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Robot, homonymous with aibō, "pal" or "partner" in Japanese) May 1999 an updated it yearly until 2005. In 2018, they announced a significantly upgraded AI-Enhanced AIBO at CES.
Rise of Pet Robots: Threats to Pet Ownership
Can robotic or AI devices replace pets? If so, how much of an impact would that have on the pet industry and over what period of time would it likely occur?
While it’s impossible to fully answer these questions, we can look back at history. Whenever these robotic pets have made significant technological advancements and received widespread publicity, the public has purchased them. Lots of them. Of course, a Tagomotchi couldn’t necessarily replace a real cat, but we haven’t seen a truly advanced personal assistant “pet” similar to AIBO yet.
The threats to pet ownership are real: 1) Rising cost to care for a pet - food, medical care, housing, and licensing, 2) Urbanization, resulting in limitations on pet size, breed or species a person can have in an apartment or rental home 3) Time constraints - Busy lifestyles causing fewer people to have the time to care for a pet.
Sony has made no secret they’re interested in creating robots and robotic pets to serve as meaningful personal assistants, in addition to providing companionship and emotional support. Imagine if your “pet” could also schedule your doctor’s appointment, get you a glass of water, and answer any question? What if it could drive your car? These are some of the developments we can expect over the next 5 to 10 years.
I was closely observing the people at CES who came to see AIBO in action. Nearly every face was beaming, smiling ear-to-ear, and genuinely interested in the “feelings” and abilities of AIBO. Sure, it’s easy to reduce their responses to novelty or curiosity, but, as a practicing veterinarian for over 25 years, I sensed something deeper going on behind their brightly lit eyes. The only thing I can honestly relate the experience to was watching someone with a new puppy or baby.
It’s easy to dismiss these advances as affecting only a small portion of pet owners. I agree; I don’t expect robotic pets to replace warm-blooded furry friends any time soon. I do, however, expect them to cause a decline in global pet ownership. If robots, AI, virtual reality, cost of pet care, or any number of pressures cause a decline in pet ownership by 10%, that could have potentially devastating effects for the pet industry -- and veterinary professionals.
Choosing between a Robot Pet and a Real One
Even more troubling, how will these advances affect Generation Z and beyond? Faced with the choice between a puppy that needs training and a robotic pal that can instantly play video games with the family’s children, teach a foreign language and help with homework, what will future potential pet owners choose? How will parents make this difficult decision?
Veterinary professionals need to emphasize the positive health and emotional benefits of pet ownership. Whether those benefits are improved health, decreased allergies, improved empathy or strengthening personal responsibility, veterinary professionals must proclaim these reasons loudly and widely. Our professional organizations need to prioritize engaging Gen Z and ensuring today’s 3 to 7-year olds share their lives with animals.
Pets are Gateways to Nature
I also think more veterinarians need to appreciate pets as I do: as “Gateways to Nature.” Too many of the world’s children live completely disconnected from nature, raised on asphalt playgrounds, never setting foot on farms, witnessing wild animals, or experiencing nature firsthand. My belief is that pets can serve as an essential physical and emotional connection to nature. I think pet ownership is a critical step toward preserving our environment and planet for future generations. Veterinary professionals need to partner with environmental advocates, wildlife experts and farmers. We need to make the humane care of all animals a priority and I believe pets are the foundation of this philosophy for many.
Will robot pets replace real dogs and cats? Yes, for some. For others, robotic pets and AI will enhance the relationship shared with animals. I envision a future where an AIBO helps a family monitor a cat’s kidney disease, accompanies children on walks with their real dog, and even alerts their veterinarian when the family bird is ill. I see a bright future full of all sorts of technological advancements, and a dog and cat sharing my bed at night. Robots will have to sleep on the floor.