SCIENCE

We May All Have Robot Pets In The Not-So-Distant Future

05/14/2015 08:54 am ET | Updated May 15, 2015
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA via Getty Images

For better or worse, robots seem poised to take over all sorts of human jobs in the not-too-distant future -- replacing us in factories and offices and maybe even in the bedroom.

And people may not be the only ones facing stiff competition from the cyborgs. According to an animal welfare researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia, robots might soon replace our favorite pets.

“It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation,” Dr. Jean-Loup Rault said in a written statement. “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."

Rault's not the only scientist that thinks robotic pets are on the way. Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told The Huffington Post in an email:

"Cars have replaced horses. Home security systems have replaced guard dogs. Internet kittens are cuter than your kittens. Pooper-scooper laws are unnecessary for cuddly stuffed animals on your bed. And your pet bird should have never been kept in a cage to begin with. Robot pets are inevitable. And possibly overdue."

A matter of sustainability. More than half of people in Western societies own a pet, according to Rault. As the population grows and becomes increasingly urban, he believes owning flesh-and-blood companion animals is likely to become economically unsustainable for many people.

"Efforts to develop cities designed to be green and pet-friendly are ongoing," he wrote in an opinion piece for journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science. "However, a more realistic future is that pets may become a luxury possession for people who can afford to sustain their cost and fulfill their needs in terms of space, social, and mental needs according to possibly higher ethical standards raised by future societies."

But could a robotic Rover give its owners the same benefits as a real one? Studies have linked dog ownership with lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and higher self-esteem. And scientists at the University of Arizona are investigating whether doggy germs give our immune systems a boost.

Maybe more to the point, could we love a pet that runs not on kibbles but electrical power? Would we accept affection from such a being?

Transformative technology. A 2008 study showed that Sony's robo-dog AIBO helped nursing home residents in the U.S. feel less isolated. And funerals held for "dead" robotic dogs last March in Japan suggest that their owners really can develop a strong attachment to the devices.

"For those who keep AIBOs, they are nothing like home appliances," Hiroshi Funabashi, a supervisor at a Japanese company that repairs the robo-dogs, told AFP. "It's obvious they think their (robotic pet) is a family member."

Rault argues that robo-pet technology will soon be sophisticated enough to cover 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 said in the statement.

But not everyone agrees our society will snuggle up to robodogs. Jason Silva, host of the National Geographic Channel's "Brain Games," sees a different future for humans and their pets.

"Not sure if robot dogs will 'replace' our pets, but I wouldn't be surprised if we continue to engineer our best friends," he told The Huffington Post in an email. "Remember that dogs were our first biotechnology project. We bred them into existence in their current form. We engineered them."

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