Robot dogs and the people who love them

Dogs have been man’s best friend in the animal kingdom for thousands of years. They’re loyal companions and can even perform useful tasks like herding sheep and fetching slippers. They are easily attainable, cheap, and come in a variety of colors, shapes, sizes and temperaments.

But in the past few years, a new breed of dog has shown up, made not of flesh and blood but of metal and plastic, a dog without some endearing qualities–like a cold wet nose or a friendly tongue–but also without some less endearing qualities, like having to be let out in the middle of the night and a tendency to smell funny when wet.

These robot dogs, most famously Sony’s AIBO, could of course never take the place of a real dog in a human’s affections…or could they? After all, research has already shown that some owners tend to forget their robot dogs are simply machines. (One owner reported that he turns his AIBO so it faces away from him while he’s getting dressed, for modesty’s sake.)

Two experiments are now underway to see if interacting with a robot dog can provide the same benefits for senior citizens and children as interacting with a real dog.

It’s well-known that having a real pet can improve the health of the aged. Studies show that Alzheimer’s patients, for instance, smile and laugh more, are less hostile to their caretakers, and are more socially communicative when they have a pet to interact with. Petting, talking and walking a pet can boost social interaction for withdrawn nursing home residents and provide opportunities for physical and recreational therapy for everyone.

However, caring for a real pet can be difficult for a senior citizen living alone, and problematic in a health-care facility–so the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, using a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is conducting a study to see if robot dogs can benefit seniors as much as real ones.

Researchers have asked live-alone seniors 65 and older to note their feelings and daily activities for six weeks in a journal. After that, each senior is given an AIBO for another six weeks, and asked to continue the journal. The “baseline” and “robo-owner” journals are then compared to see if the AIBOs altered the mental outlook of their keepers.

The results aren’t in yet, but if robot dogs do prove beneficial, they may become commonplace in nursing homes and other senior-oriented facilities. Future robot dogs could even incorporate sensors to monitor their keepers’ vital signs, and be programmed to call for help if an emergency arose (sort of like Lassie).

Past studies have also shown that interaction with animals benefits children, improving their physical health and social abilities and providing learning opportunities. With more and more children receiving robotic pets–there are a wide variety available this Christmas–the Center for the Human-Animal Bond has also undertaken a study comparing children’s interactions with robotic pets as opposed to real ones.

Seventy-two children in three age groups (7-8, 10-11, and 13-14) interact in separate sessions with a live pet and with an AIBO. The sessions are video-taped. The children are asked questions relating to their conceptions in four major areas: physical essences (i.e., “Does AIBO have a brain?”), mental states (“Why did AIBO kick the ball?” “Can AIBO feel scared?”), social companionship (“Can AIBO be your friend?”), and moral concepts (“If AIBO does something bad, like knock over a glass of water, should AIBO be blamed? Can AIBO be punished? Is it all right to hit AIBO?”)

The preliminary results show that children relate very strongly to AIBO on a social and psychological level, but don’t feel any sense of moral responsibility or concern toward it–which makes sense, because AIBO requires very little care, doesn’t have to be cleaned up after, and can’t be hurt. The researchers are concerned that if interaction with robot pets replaces interaction with real animals, that sense of moral responsibility and concern may not develop.

It’s an interesting field of study, and one that will become more and more interesting as robot pets–and robots of other kinds–are further integrated into our lives over the next several years.

I’m sure no owner of a real dog today would dream of replacing him with a robot dog…but a child who grows up with a robot dog might feel the same way about replacing his pet with the slobbery kind.

As for me…I’d rather have a cat, anyway.

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