Will Robot Dogs Replace Man’s Best Friend?

Robot pets are still in their infancy, but roboticists say they'll one day be able to read your emotions and respond accordingly. Their memory will even be transferable to an upgraded model to give you a companion for life.

Dogs are a man’s best friend, right? Sure, when you overlook how costly, inconvenient, needy, and gross dogs are. As a three-time dog owner, I’ve been able to overlook all those negatives, but I’m starting to rethink the whole pet-ownership thing.

First, a little background. When my wife and I rented our first apartment eight years ago, the landlord wouldn’t allow us to have a dog in fear the pooch would destroy the place. But he didn’t mind cats. I wasn’t a cat guy, but we got a cat, and he was the best pet I’ve ever had.

Fast forward six years, my wife and I are expecting our first child and we buy a house in the boonies of Western Massachusetts. As you can probably imagine, the cat was unceremoniously lowered down the totem pole of priorities. And sadly, a couple weeks ago, we lost him to a pack of coyotes.

My now two-year-old daughter hasn’t really noticed his disappearance, despite the occasional desire to give him some treats. It’s just another painful reminder of the negatives of owning a pet: you’ll eventually have to say goodbye.

We’ve vowed to never get another cat. They’re not meant to be kept indoors, and letting him outside, we’ve discovered, is basically suicide. And we don’t want a dog. But at some point, my daughter will want a pet. We’ve tossed around the idea of a bunny, some chickens, a goat.

But what about a robot pet? Is it a legit option more people should consider? Think about the joy a robot dog could bring to those who are too allergic or too busy to own the real thing. WowWee Robotics certainly hopes so, as it recently introduced CHiP (Canine Home Intelligent Pet) the robot dog at RoboBusiness 2015. He’ll go on sale for $199 in May 2016 in hopes of being a true companion for families everywhere.

Designed to give you “all the friend and none of the mess,” CHiP uses GPS to know his location and uses IR and Bluetooth sensors to avoid obstacles around him, including the stairs. He has wheels to move around, plays fetch with his sensor-embedded ball, and knows where his owner is thanks to a “2-way leash” that allows CHiP to greet you as you open the door. CHiP even returns to his charging station when he’s getting tired.

Talk about low maintenance. Now, you might think this sounds far-fetched, but many scientists, including famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, will tell you this is a real possibility in the near future. “Cars have replaced horses. Home security systems have replaced guard dogs. Internet kittens are cuter than your kittens,” Tyson says. “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.”

Robot pets are still in their infancy, but roboticists say they’ll one day be able to read your emotions and respond accordingly. Their memory will even be transferable to an upgraded model to give you a companion for life.

Sony AIBO Robot Dog
Sony AIBO robot dog

Robots pets formed quite a bond with people in Japan. When Sony closed the last repair clinic for its discontinued AIBO robot dog, 19 owners held funerals at the Kofuku-ji Temple in Chiba Prefecture. There was even a priest to say a prayer. Many owners felt abandoned by Sony, which discontinued AIBO due to its manufacturing cost and increasing competition, as they didn’t think there was an end to the lives of their robotic dogs.

A 2008 study showed Sony’s AIBO helped nursing home residents in the U.S. feel less isolated. So there’s evidence robots can replicate that human-pet relationship. Certainly there will be those who won’t ever replace their furry little friends with a robot version, but in some parts of the world pets are becoming a luxury possession for people who can afford to sustain their cost and meet their space, social, and mental needs.

“We are possibly witnessing the dawn of a new era, the digital revolution with likely effects on pet ownership, similar to the industrial revolution which replaced animal power for petrol and electrical engines,” Dr. Jean-Loup Rault, from the University of Melbourne’s Animal Welfare Science Centre, recently wrote.

So, if you have a dog, go give it a hug. The robot dogs are coming.

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About the Author

Steve Crowe · Steve Crowe is managing editor of Robotics Trends. Steve has been writing about technology since 2008. He lives in Belchertown, MA with his wife and daughter.
Contact Steve Crowe: scrowe@ehpub.com  ·  View More by Steve Crowe.


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