If having a pet just isn’t practical for your lifestyle, could a roboticcompanion be the next best thing?

**** For many reasons, a pet might not be suitable for your living situation.But that doesn’t mean you need to miss out on the love and affection of afour-legged friend.

Whether you’re an animal lover with a dog-sized heart, or you just want alittle more companionship, a robot pet might be for you. Modelled after theimage of their real-life counterparts, these interactive companion robotscould help fill the void of humankind’s best friend and much more – batteriesnot included.

Social robotics researchers from UNSW are optimistic about their benefits andbelieve they could very well enter our homes, and our hearts, very soon.

“Robotic pets can be low maintenance, sterile, hypoallergenic and cannot catchor pass on disease. They work for those who would like a companion, but cannotbe in contact with a live animal, or cannot care for one,” says BelindaDunstan, human-machine interaction lecturer at UNSW Built Environment.

Dr Dunstan, who researches social robotics, says while it might sound unusual,it’s actually normal for people to care for a range of objects, includingrobots. In fact, it has been found that up to 80% of Roomba vacuum cleanerowners name their vacuum.

“It’s quite natural for us to form attachments to embodied objects, andparticularly ones that exhibit some sense of sentience,” she says.

“We have a spectrum of care-based relationships and connections: friends,lovers, pets, colleagues, neighbours, houseplants – people even name theirsourdough yeast starters. I see robotic pets as fitting into that spectrum andjust being another avenue for humans to exhibit care and connection.”

Robo-pets, roll out

One of the most effective uses of robotic companion pets so far has been inassisted living environments. In scenarios where it’s unsuitable to have realpets, robotic pets can be highly effective companions, such as PARO, aninteractive robotic seal, used for animal therapy with dementia patients.

“PARO is successful because there’s a very clear use case for dementiapatients who can’t have a real animal in that space,” says Scott Brown,Assistive Technology Lead at the Creative Robotics Lab, UNSW Art & Designsays. “It plays well into the limited complexity of robots compared with ananimal, so somebody with dementia can cope with it.”

Robotic pets could also be beneficial for those with anxiety around animals.Dr Brown says a robotic companion animal could be used to help overcome fearsabout interacting with a real dog.

“Interacting with a robot dog first could translate to people being morecomfortable around real dogs. It wouldn’t be too dissimilar to what we’redoing with Kaspar, using it as a surrogate for the real-world experience forchildren with autism…it doesn’t replace interaction, but it would be astepping stone.”

He says we could be ready to see more robotic companion pets in our homes,too. We’re becoming more receptive to relationships with robots, beginning inchildhood.

“[Many of] the toys we see today are on a spectrum of robotics,” he says.“It’s something that is becoming very common, and we’re becoming a lot morecomfortable with the idea.”

He says our relationship to a robotic family pet might not be too differentfrom a Tamagotchi (we might even forget to feed it from time to time).

“You have this care responsibility with the Tamagotchi that is key in buildingthat relationship…that is something that is potentially [amplified] with anembodied object like a robotic companion animal,” he says.

A robo-dog eat dog world?

However, Dr Brown says we shouldn’t expect robotic pets to replace the realthing anytime soon. In addition to being quite expensive, consumer roboticslack the ability to replicate an animal comprehensively.

“The perception of what a robot can actually do, at this point, is far beyondwhat robots are able to do,” he says. “I wouldn’t expect in the next fiveyears that we will see the robots that can replicate enough of an animal thatit will be a case of one or the other.”

Dr Dunstan also agrees that we won’t see our relationships with robotic petsreplace human-pet interactions.

“The direction social robotics is going is collaborative, assistive andaugmenting human activity so they exist alongside and help us with things. Wedo not see a trend towards any relationship replacement , and I think thesame could be said for robotic pets.”

She says the most effective use of social robots like robotic pets is not inreplacing interaction with animals, but augmenting or sitting alongside ourother kinds of relationships.

“Rather than thinking of robotic pets as a poor replacement for a dog, weshould broaden our ideas about the types of human relationships that we have,all of which are beneficial, and none of which substitute the other,” shesays.

While robotic pets might not necessarily replace pets, they are ultimatelyanother opportunity for caring relationships which, Dr Dunstan says, is alwaysa good thing.

“I’m really optimistic about any form of connection, expressions-of-careopportunities for relationships and varied kinds of caring relationships. Ithink those are always positive for humans,” Dr Dunstan says.

“Particularly if social isolation is something that continues, or is morecommon in the future, I think any opportunity for caregiving is very valuable.We’ve seen this year in particular just how essential it really is.”

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