Anyone who has ever been responsible for a pet knows they give as good as they get in terms of unconditional love and devotion. So, I read with some amusement the thoughts of an 'animal welfare' researcher in Oz who believes that robotic pets will soon replace our beloved living and breathing best friends. Dr. Jean-Loup Rault of the University of Melbourne writing in the latest edition of Frontiers in Veterinary Science argues pets will soon become a luxury in an overpopulated world and we will be happy with cyber cats and dogs that mimic the real thing.
Dr Rault said in a written statement: "It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation." He continued: "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." Well I'm not sure about you, but I cannot ever foresee sentient creatures with their own unique personalities and beating hearts ever being replaced by cold robotic paws and silent chests.
Pets give people so much in terms of love and emotional support. Simply stroking a dog or cat can lead to lower blood pressure and can combat stress. Studies have also shown that looking a dog in the eyes can boost levels of oxytocin (a hormone involved in social bonding), in both the person and the dog. There is in fact nothing artificial that could ever replace that sheer authenticity of feeling. I couldn't put it more aptly than Cats Protection's Behaviour Manager Nicky Trevorrow who says: "Children especially learn so much from keeping animals and programmed affection is no substitute for the real two-way bond between a pet and its owner. It's sad to think a lump of metal could take the place of a sentient being with a unique personality." There is certainly no shortage of real cats and dogs looking for homes. There are literally thousands of abandoned pets in the UK alone. Figures by the Dogs Trust, the country's largest dog welfare charity, reveal there are more than 110,000 stray or abandoned dogs in the UK, with 21 dogs a day being put down by local authorities. So, if your heart is not necessarily set on a puppy, why not pay a visit to your local rescue centre? Both my parents and my brother have rescue dogs, a Lurcher and a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, who are both the loveliest dogs you could imagine.
More than half of people in Western societies own a pet, according to Rault. As the population grows and becomes increasingly urban, he believes living and breathing companion animals are likely to become economically unsustainable for many people. Brazil, where 85% of people live in densely populated cities like Rio de Janiero, has more small dogs per capita than any other country in the world. According to research by Euromonitor, that's because of Brazil's growing middle class who most likely sees the acquisition of small dogs as a badge of their newfound wealth.
While it's true that many still developing countries also have growing numbers of pets, it's hardly democratic to insist that they should replace fur with metal. Why should people be deprived of the love and affection of a real pet? There is so much joy to be experienced in observing a pet dog or cat playing or running through a field after a ball or sunning themselves in the garden. As intelligent human beings, we know that that authenticity of feeling can never be replaced by a 'being' made up of circuitry and metal, no matter how much artificial intelligence scientists manage to bestow on them. We've had ill-fated forays already into the world of robo pets. Remember the initial cult appeal of the Tamagotchi? The virtual pet's designers thought that owners would form a relationship with the 'pet' that could overcome its virtual appearance. In the end, most people let their cyber pet die; in many cases, just to see what would happen. In the absence of psychopathy, most people would of course never wish to deliberately neglect their living and breathing pet to see what happened.
However, Rault argues that robo-pet technology will soon be sophisticated enough to meet our emotional needs. "When engineers work on robotic dogs, they work on social intelligence, they address what people need from their dogs: companionship, love, obedience, dependence," he commented. It's true that Japan in particular is forging ahead in the realm of robotics. Scientists specializing in artificial intelligence are making meaningful breakthroughs in creating robots that literally have minds of their own. Cyber humans will, it is predicted, increasingly take our jobs. This all seems like the start of a plot of some dystopian movie; a world populated by cyber people and their cyber pets. If Rault and his ilk are to have their way, that's the nightmarish future that may well play itself out.
Marie Carter is the Editor and Publisher of Pets Magazine, a unique leading lifestyle magazine for pet owners, with a monthly readership of 24,000. She also runs specialist PR, Content-generation & Marketing & Digital Publishing Services for the Pet Industry - more details at Pets Magazine's website.