Posted by: fastforward on Aug 30, 2011
I want a cat. The problem is that my land lord doesn’t allow pets and my digsmate is allergic to anything cute and fluffy. I am also moving out at the end of the year and travel frequently, which really doesn’t work well with territorial creatures of the feline persuasion. Perhaps a cyber cat is the answer?
With the increase in the estimated life span of citizens in many countries, and the increased urbanisation which has resulted in many small, high-rise flats, a niche in the market has evolved for a compact companion that doesn’t need excessive care or space to run around.
While the first wave of robotic pets were only capable of very repetitive, programmed movements, scientists are now working on ways to develop pets which respond in more nuanced, ‘emotional’ ways and may even one day react to human facial expressions. They are currently developing a type of neural network which would allow the robots to ‘learn’ new behaviours and adapt their current behaviour to suit different situations.
There are robotic pets on the market which give us an indication of what is already possible and left to improve upon. There is already a fluffy robotic baby seal on the market called Paro, which is classified as a medical device as it was specifically developed to act as a therapeutic tool in places where pets aren’t allowed, like hospitals and other medical facilities.
Paro, the robotic baby seal, comes with a charger which looks like a pacifier, to
keep the illusion of reality alive.
Photo by HokutoSuisse
Paro can tell if it’s being stroked or held, and can recognise its name, words of praise and the location of the speaker. It even imitates the sound of a real baby harp seal and mimics their natural daily cycle (it is more ‘awake’ during the day and gets ‘sleepy’ at night), all for the amazingly affordable price of R42 000.
If baby seals aren’t your thing, there is a robotic dinosaur named Pleo available for purchase for around R3 300. Pleo isn’t very fluffy, but he is capable of ‘emotions’ such as happiness, playfulness and curiosity, fear and sadness. They are ‘born’ with unique personalities – so your Pleo will develop both according to it’s innate tendencies and through learning behaviours and interactions with it’s owner. It will complain if you don’t play with it and start wandering around the house if left alone for a period of time.
What about a robotic dog or a cat? They do exist (and Sega Toy’s robotic cat is quite cute), but many are not much more than toys or available commercially. Sony’s attempt at a robotic dog (Aibo) was discontinued in 2006.
The fact remains that none of these ‘pets’ are truly autonomous creatures. While they are ‘safer’ for small children (Paro will not bite you if you hit it) and they do offer benefits for those with allergies, a disability or simply no time or patience to care for and feed a real animal, many are not yet as advanced to meet the expected requirements of a real pet. But robots don’t die either – as long as you have electricity and a charger, you will have a pet.
While it is up to the individual to weigh up the pros and cons, the fact remains that we are slowly but surely reaching a future where there will be more intelligent, more responsive, more lifelike and independent alternatives to the current range of robotic creatures. But as much as I wouldn’t mind a dinosaur wandering around my flat, I’d still much rather have a real life cat.