Fred Foldvary on Robot Pets are Here
|October 27, 2004||Posted by Fred Foldvary under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Fred Foldvary’s Editorial
Robot Pets are Here
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
In my January 2000 millennium column, I predicted that “There will also be virtual holographic plants and animals and animal-like robots that people will keep as pet substitutes.”
I did not know then that pet robots were already in the works. The Sharper Image Gift Catalog 2000 features Sony’s AIBO, an autonomous robot companion [Sony and AIBO are trademarks of Sony].
The AIBO robot dog responds to its environment, learns, and acquires its own individual “personality.” It costs $1590. The name AIBO comes from “artificial intelligence” and “robot”. Also, “aibo” means “companion” in Japanese.
The version announced in October 2000 is the AIBO ERS-210, with shipments to be made in December. I suppose some wealthy folks will be getting these as presents for their children – robot pets that don’t have the messy inputs and outputs of biological pets.
AIBO learns the name you give it, using voice-recognition technology. It has an electronic voice that can respond to your call. Robot dog can learn about 50 commands. One would hope that “sic him!” would not be one of them. From the pictures in the catalog, it doesn’t seem that it bites, fortunately.
Robot dog does have 20 motorized joints enabling it to sit, lie down, walk, flap its ears, and wag its metallic tail. It is programmed to emit emotions. It also plays with the pink ball included in the package. Indeed, robot dog is programmed to act as though it had free will, acting on its own on occasion.
Robot technology is moving ahead rapidly, and it seems that it is only a matter of a short time that we will also have robot humans. They will come in female and male forms, and there will also be robot children for folks who don’t have any biological ones or would like a mechanical sibling for their child.
A robot dog can be an interesting novelty. Human beings have had dolls and stuffed animals as pretend companions, so this is really nothing new. But what is new is interactive robots that mimic living beings. The robot dog no longer might be just a pretend dog but, to the owner’s mind, can become like a real living dog.
A mechanical robot cannot really substitute for a living pet such as a dog or cat. The companionship comes from its being another mind. As social beings living in a mental universe, we seek the company and affection of other minds. The robot, as it is now, is not part of this mental universe.
But the human mind can impute life into things which do not live. While it may not seem harmful when someone treats a mechanical dog as though it were biological, it could be another step away from nature, another level of alienation from nature.
Perhaps in the far future there will be humanoid robots such as “Data” in the TV show Star Trek, which will in a real sense be alive and sentient. But for now, we just have clever machines that imitate life. Our civilization has become ever more alienated from nature as we live in an increasingly artificial environment, and robot pets are another step away from the natural world.
The good news, however, is that as robot dogs become cheaper and more popular, the negative effects of dogs will diminish. City dwellers will no longer have to do the two-step dance to check the soles of their shoes after walking on sidewalks littered with dog poop. Fewer folks will be kept up all night by their neighbor’s dog barking. There will be fewer dog bites, and we won’t have to worry so much about rabies. If the robot dogs start running around in the streets in packs, they can be programmed not to attack us. There will be fewer unwanted sad little puppies in animal shelters.
So the robot pet technology does have its benefits. But the human spirit will be diminished if we come to live in a world populated only with other humans and with robots, but no natural living animals. No robot can substitute for my beloved catty companion.
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Copyright 2000 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.