Will Robot Pets Replace Real Dogs and Cats? CES 2018 Report

Will Robot Pets Replace Real Dogs and Cats? Will advances in artificial intelligence and robotics lead to a decrease in pet ownership? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of AI or robotic pets? I went to the 2018 Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas to find out. 

Robot pets have been featured in science fiction for decades. Toy pets have captured the popular imagination over the past 20 years, with some products achieving incredible success. In November 1996, the Tamagotchi (Japanese for “egg” “watch”) was released and has sold over 76 million of these “handheld digital pets” worldwide. 

In 1998, the Furby was released as the first “electronic robot toy.” Over 40 million sold from 1998-2001. 

Ten years later, in 2008, ZhuZhu Pets, a plush robotic hamster toy was released. Touted as ‘the adorable robotic hamsters that don’t “poop, die or stink,” they sold over 70 million ZhuZhu Pets in four years, totaling over $2 billion in sales. 

Sony released its AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Robot, homonymous with aibō, "pal" or "partner" in Japanese) May 1999 an updated it yearly until 2005. In 2018, they announced a significantly upgraded AI-Enhanced AIBO at CES.  

There are numerous studies proving humans can make strong emotional bonds with robots and computer programs. And, of course, there are Furbis. 

So can robotic or AI devices replace pets? If so, how much of an impact and over what period of time?

The threats to pet ownership are real: 1) Rising cost to care for a pet - food, medical care, housing, and licensing, 2) Urbanization resulting in limitations on pet size, breed or species, 3) Time constraints -  Busy lifestyles causing fewer to have the time to care for a pet.

Sony has made no secret they’re interested in creating robots an robotic pets to serve as meaningful personal assistants in addition to providing companionship. Imagine if your “pet” could also schedule your doctor’s appointment, get you a glass of water, and answer any question. These  are some examples of the types of developments we can expect over the next 5 years.

What I can also tell you is that I was closely observing the people at CES who came to see AIBO in action. Nearly every face was beaming, smiling ear-to-ear, and genuinely interested in the “feelings” and abilities of AIBO. Sure, it’s easy to pass their brightly lit faces as novelty or curiosity, but, as a practicing veterinarian fo rover 25 years, I sensed something deeper. The only thing I can honestly relate the experience to was watching someone with a new puppy or baby. 

It’s easy to dismiss these advances as affecting only a small portion of pet owners. I agree; I don’t expect robotic pets to replace warm-blooded furry friends any time soon. I do, however, expect them to cause a decline in global pet ownership. If robots, AI, Virtual Reality, cost of care, or any of a number of pressures cause a decline in pet ownership by 10%, that could have potentially devastating effects for veterinarians. Even more troubling, how will these advances affect Generation Z and beyond? Faced with the choice between a puppy and a robotic pal that can play video games with them, teach a foreign language and help with homework, what will they choose? What will their parents choose?

The solution is for veterinary professionals to emphasize the positive benefits of pet ownership. Whether those benefits are improved health, decreased allergies, improved empathy or strengthening personal responsibility, we must proclaim them loudly and widely. Our organizations need to prioritize engaging Gen Z and ensuring today’s 3 to 7 year olds share their lives with animals. 

I also think veterinarians need to appreciate pets as I do; I see pets as “Gateways to Nature.”  Too many of the world’s children live completely disconnected from nature, raised on asphalt playgrounds, never seeing farms, wild animals, or experiencing nature. My belief is that pets can serve as an essential physical and emotional connection to nature. I think this is critical to preserving our environment and planet for future generations. Veterinary professionals need to partner with environmental advocates, wildlife experts and farmers. We need to make the humane care of all animals a priority and I believe pets are the foundation of this philosophy for many. 

Will robot pets replace real dogs and cats? Yes, for some. For others, robotic pets and AI will enhance our relationship with the animals we love and care for. I envision a future where we leverage AIBO to help me make sure my cat is healthy, accompany me on walks with my real dog, and perhaps even alert my veterinarian when my bird is ill. I see a bright future full of all sorts of technological advancements and a dig and cat sharing my bed at night. Robots will sleep on the floor.