Countless science fiction authors have imagined the future. Robotic pets sometimes play a major role like in Philip K Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep." His vision of families that purchase robotic pets to fill their caretaking needs has offered up even more imagination!
To begin looking into the future of robotic pets we first have to understand what exists now. The present condition is summed up by a look at the WowWee Company and its current line of robopets. They are currently the only company producing commercial level robotic pets. The most popular of these is the Roboraptor dinosaur robot. They also offer a robot version of a panda bear, a boa constrictor, a roboreptile, a quad legged alien pet and a dog-like robot. They are all cased in black and white plastic and offer rudimentary robotic actions including some learning programs. These are great as toys, WowWee is a toy company after all, but are far from what anyone would consider a pet. These robots are currently available second hand only as the originals have all been retired by the company. They were a great first attempt at pet robots but never did quite catch on in the mainstream, however, robot kits are still popular.
The next big thing in future robot pets was introduced at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The PLEOrb robot is a plush dinosaur robot that is everything the widely popular Furby was touted to be. This is the second attempt by the Innvo Labs Corporation at the introduction of an interactive kid's toy robot. The original PLEO didn’t fare as well and received little public attention. The new version, complete with the plush exterior and a more kid friendly appearance retails for around $469 but is well worth the investment. This robot begins life as a new hatchling and from then on learns through interactions with its environment. The autonomous nature means that no two PLEOrbs are the same.
The PLEOrb has physical and emotional responses to various stimuli and can be taught when to respond through various interactive programming kits offered through the website. There are also full personalities that can be downloaded into the robot to provide an even more unique experience.
This still qualifies as a toy over a pet. It does have some autonomy but offers very little in the way of caretaking or reward interaction. The PLEOrb is a great learning gift that will grow with a child through their formative years and maybe a nice tool for learning the basics of computer programming when they are older but nonetheless, still a toy.
The University of Brussels has teamed up with local hospitals to work on their prototype “Probo," a huggable robot for kids. Though not a pet by definition, it is the closest thing to an interactive robot pet as is available today. The prototype unit is a two foot tall green elephant-like robot that is hoped to be used in children’s wards to help diagnose and treat patients in Robot Assisted Therapy. There are plans to make a marketable product based on the Probo but this is not expected to happen for several years.
Are Robotic Pets as Good as the Real Thing?
There have been several major studies that show robot pets are as effective in eliciting emotional responses as real ones without having to be fed or cleaned up after. The future robotic pets market may trend toward use with a population of seniors that just can’t do all of the bending that is necessary to care for a real pet.
A study done at the University of Missouri showed patients that petted the AIBO Sony robotic dog for a few minutes had a marked decrease of Cortisol levels in the brain. Cortisol is a major indicator of stress in the body. A study in Japan that focused on the use of a plush seal named Paro showed exposure to the robot lowered depression and increased brain activity in dementia patients in as little as twenty minutes.
The therapeutic use of robot pets has been well documented but the switch from a flesh and blood animal to one filed with wires and circuit boards may never catch on. They do look like they will have their place with the elderly and in hospital situations but this may be the extent of actual future of robotic pets.
Image of RoboRaptor courtesy of Amazon.com
Image of PLEOrb courtesy of Innov Labs
Image of Probo courtesy of the University of Brussels