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The truth about robot cats and dogs: can they replace real pets?

New realistic-looking AI devices ‘learn’ and grow smarter over time, act as therapeutic companions – and recharge their batteries themselves

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 11:58am

Tail wagging excitedly, little aibo follows its owner with cute, puppy dog eyes.

He loves to be patted, has learnt to “high five”, and even knows when you have had a good – or bad – day.

This latest incarnation from Sony robotics is not, of course, a real dog, but the most realistic version yet.

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“Born” with deep learning artificial intelligence (AI), pups in the aibo First Litter Edition can detect and respond to their owners’ facial expressions and voice commands – growing smarter as time goes on.

Mike Fasulo, president and COO of Sony Electronics North America, says: “aibo will pick up on your personality.

“If you’ve had a hard day at the office, it knows to be docile and not bother you.

“If you’ve had a great day and come home cheerful, it’s dancing, jumping around and trying to give you love.”

To bring aibo to life, Sony developed a wide range of sensors, cameras and actuators.

Ultra-compact 1- and 2-axis actuators give the body the freedom to move along a total of 22 axes, with adaptable behaviour made possible by inbuilt sensors that can detect and analyse sounds and images.

If you’ve had a hard day at the office, it knows to be docile and not bother you. If you come home cheerful, it’s jumping around and trying to give you love
Mike Fasulo, Sony Electronics North America

In addition, two organic light-emitting diodes are used for aibo’s eyes and allow for diverse, nuanced expressions.

Sony says it is this advanced technology that ensures that no two aibos have the same “personality” – because AI is shaped by experiences.

The bot learns tricks via the My aibo app, which can also be used to customise the pup’s gender, eye colour, and voice.

It can be trained using tonal commands similar to that of a real dog (such as “good boy” or “bad job”), and likes a scratch as a reward.

The digital pet can apparently recognise up to 100 faces, knowing the difference between a child and an adult, or an object.

When the battery runs low, it will automatically return to home base to recharge.

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Since these digital pets first appeared a couple of decades ago, they have been a source of fascination for people.

Multimillion-selling ‘pets’

More than 76 million Tamagotchi were reportedly sold after it was launched in Japan in November 1996.

The Furby, which appeared in 1998, was bought by more than 40 million people in its first three years alone; while the robotic hamsters from ZhuZhu Pets (which means “little pig” in Chinese), released in 2008-09, surpassed sales of more than 70 million in four years.

We have evolved to be attuned to other life forms – and not only other human life forms. We are predisposed to see the characteristics of life
Gail Melson, psychologist

Along with the new breed of pet-bots, some of these original favourites have been returning to stores in recent years.

So why are people so taken with them?

Gail Melson, a psychologist and professor emerita at Purdue University, in the United States, who has studied human-robot interactions, believes it is basically because people are inherently social creatures.

“We have evolved to be attuned to other life forms – and not only other human life forms,” she told Futurism, a science and technology contributor to the World Economic Forum.

“We are predisposed to see the characteristics of life.”

She researched how children interacted with an earlier incarnation of Sony’s aibo and found that while most treated the robotic pet differently from a real dog – behaving as if it was an inanimate object or a toy – they did have an emotional attachment (for instance, believing that it would be wrong to harm the aibo dog or throw it out).

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This crossover into “hybrid categories” of life forms is noted particularly among children, who have lived with computer technology since birth.

The latest aibo is not the only pretend pet on the market, of course.

... a non-gender-specific robot dog

A little white puppy called Georgie, from MGA Entertainment, provides the usually doggy noises and movements.

It – as a proudly non gender-specific bot – will respond to only 12 preprogrammed commands, but that is possibly enough to keep young ones entertained.

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WowWee’s Chip is a clever boy, with sensors providing situational awareness and the ability to respond to gesture-based interactions such as swipes, claps, and touch.

The original Chip has now had a litter of playful robot pubs, called the Chippies which, when not playing, can use their sensors to guard the room from intruders.

‘Lifelike’ companions for elderly

For those of you who are not a dog person, the feline furballs from Hasbro’s Joy for All companion pet range might hold more appeal.

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Designed primarily for older adults, these robotic cats are billed as “a lifelike alternative” providing the companionship of a real pet, without the responsibilities (or allergies).

The cats come in three colours – tabby, creamy white and silver – with long, plush hair for stroking.

Responding to sound and touch, they can miaow, purr, blink their eyes and roll over for a tummy scratch. Puppy models are also available.

Andrew Jeas, COO and co-founder of Ageless Innovation, a company made up of former Hasbro employees who bought the Joy for All business this year, these bots have different characteristics.

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“The cats respond to petting with realistic facial movements, preening, and rolling over, while the pup has unique technology that allows it to look toward the person speaking to it,” he says.

“Each pet is engineered to provide the most realistic and interactive experience for the owner.”

Currently, researchers led by cognitive and computer scientists from Brown University in the US are working on adding AI capabilities to the Joy for All range.

The goal is to enable the robo-pets to help older adults with simple tasks, such as finding lost objects, or medication reminders.

Therapeutic furry ‘seal pup’

Paro, the robotic white seal, is another digital device designed for therapeutic purposes.

Why a seal?

Its creator, Dr Takanori Shibata, says that a seal “is very cute and has a good shape for holding”.

He has designed robotic dogs and cats as well, but found people become more critical when it is an animal they are familiar with.

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With a seal, people “do not have high expectations”, and can accept a seal robot more easily, he says.

Modelled after a baby harp seal, Paro is covered with soft artificial fur to encourage people to touch it and give people the impression they are touching a real animal.

Five kinds of sensors enable the robot to perceive people and the environment.

The robot’s tactile sensor means it can “feel” being stroked, while the audio sensor lets Paro recognise the direction of a voice, words such as its name, greetings and praise.

... a fish tank full of robots

How about robotic fish: could the cast of the cartoon film Finding Nemo swim around in your home aquarium one day?

People will want the joy of looking at [robotic] fish, but not have to deal with feeding them, cleaning the tank, [and] keeping them healthy. I think there will be demand
Robert Katzschmann, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Robert Katzschmann, a PhD candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), does not rule it out.

The robotic fish would certainly be easier to care for than the fragile marine life that are kept in a tank.

CSAIL has produced a robotic fish, called SoFi, made of silicon rubber, which can independently swim alongside real fish in the ocean, enabling a closer study of aquatic life.

SoFi collects data as it dives and feeds the information back to the team on the surface.

In sea trials, other fish have reacted to SoFi as you would expect with any newcomer: some come close for a better look; some shy away; some do not react at all.

Katzschmann says robotic fish as pets is “very realistic” idea.

“People will want the joy of looking at fish, but not have to deal with feeding them, cleaning the tank, [and] keeping them healthy,” he says. “I think there will be demand.”