Will Robots Replace Cats?

Robotic pets could move in on our best friends' territory but companies researching ways to make virtual pets can't master the moves of cats.

Will cute and fuzzy little pets soon be a thing of the past? Some people say it’s only a matter of time before traditional pets like dogs and cats give way to robots. Yes, robots.

Dr. Jean-Loup Rault, a professor of animal welfare at the University of Melbourne, says that due to the world’s increasing population actual animals may be a privilege of the very wealthy, while everyone else will make the switch over to robotic companions. 

“It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation,” Dr. Rault says. “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.”

This idea already has legs, so to speak, in Japan where living space is at a premium. Some of the robotic pets, it is reported, receive as much attention as their living, breathing counterparts.

“Pet robotics has come a long way from the Tamagotchi craze of the mid-90s,” Rault says. “In Japan, people are becoming so attached to their robot dogs that they hold funerals for them when the circuits die.”

There are some definite benefits to robotic or virtual pets. No potty cleanup, for instance. People with allergies will find relief. Money will be saved on food.
There are some rather serious ethical questions, though. For instance, will this affect how people treat actual 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,” Rault says.

Another question is if robotic pets trigger feelings in humans of attachment, then does that mean the bond pet parents experience with their animals mean it doesn’t really exist? Perhaps that “bond” is really just humans projecting their emotions onto animals.

In anticipation of this possible trend, several companies are spending money on research and production of robotic and virtual pets. The sizes of “pets” range from pocket pets all the way up to horse size. They are advanced machines designed to move like actual animals.

They can get pretty close to the real thing in many cases. But there is one exception — cats.

“Well, that’s a little harder because you have to make them unpredictable,” Rault says.

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