Real pets could be replaced by robotic pets (robopets for short) and virtual pets sooner than we think owing to the increase in human population and advancements in artificial intelligence, an expert has suggested.
University of Melbourne animal welfare researcher Dr Jean-Loup Rault reveals in his latest paper entitled ‘Frontiers in Veterinary Science’ that the prospect of robopets and virtual pets isn’t too far-fetched and that real pets will soon become a luxury in an overpopulated world with chips and circuits taking over 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,” Dr Rault said.
Dr Rault says that the idea of robotic pets isn’t a question of centuries but mere decades. Citing example of strong emotional bonds that Japanese people have cultivated for their robotic pets, Dr Rault says that pet robots have come a long from the Tamagotchi craze of the mid-90s as more and more people in the island country are becoming so attached to their robot dogs that they hold funerals for them when the circuits die.
Dr Rault embarked on research for the paper after discovering a huge lack of information about how technology may influence our relationships with animals in the future.
People are already searching for terms such as robot dogs and Dr Rault says that though there isn’t a lot of research in this area, the idea will take off in the next 10 to 15 years.
Dr Rault raises questions on the ethical aspects of robotic pets. He warns that emergence of robopets is a double-edged sword as on one end it can benefit people who are allergic to pets, short on space, in hospital, or scared of real animals, but ethics wise it raises some very huge questions.
“Robots can, without a doubt, trigger human emotions,” Dr Rault added. “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?”
As an animal welfare researcher, Dr Rault is particularly interested in whether a surge in popularity of disposable fake pets could lead to a shift in how humanity treats 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 says it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that robot pets of the future could feature bonafide 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 said.
“They want to know everything about animal behaviour so they can replicate it as close as possible to a real pet.”
And what about robotic cats? “Well, that’s a little harder because you have to make them unpredictable,” he concluded.