AI pets nip at the human-animal bond

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The AI industry hopes robots will unseat the dog someday as man’s best friend, but Fido is safe — for now.

Though robot dogs and cats have been around for years, recent advances have made them a viable option for those who are unable to care for a living pet.

AI pets don’t require food, walks or litter boxes; they are allergy-free and come without risks of biting, scratching and pricey vet bills.

The downside, says Henry Castro, CEO of Medical Intelligence, an AI health care company, is that the robots just can’t connect the way most people expect their pets to.

“I don’t see a future where human beings are going to be attached to a robot. The empathy, warmth and sincerity of an animal is organic and hard to replace,” Dr. Casto said.

The industry is vowing to attempt it nonetheless.

Several types of robot pets hit the market in 2023. China’s Unitree Robotics this year launched GO1, the world’s first intelligent quadruped robot. The AI companion walks on all fours and follows humans around like a dog, but doesn’t need a collar or leash. Instead, its movements — including obstacle avoidance and navigation — are fueled by AI.

It also can match the speed of its human owner, even if they are moving on a bike, skateboard or jogging, the company said.

Another Chinese company, LivingAI, launched EMO this year. The roughly 5-inch tall robot pet can mimic animals by offering more than 1,000 facial expressions and movements, the company said. It can also be programmed to turn on lights, set alarm clocks and mark special events such as birthdays and holidays.

They’ve come a long way from the Tamagotchi toys that made their debut in the late 1990s as “virtual pets,” challenging kids to provide round-the-clock care and — eventually — to grapple with the death of their electronic friend.

Jean-Loup Rault, a researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, compares the current moment to the start of the Industrial Revolution when metal machines replaced horses and other work animals.

He figures increasing urbanization and rising costs of animal care will make pet ownership untenable for most people.

“Pet ownership in its current form is likely unsustainable in a growing, urbanized population. Digital technologies have quickly revolutionized human connection and social relationships, and logically could tackle human-animal relationships as well,” he wrote in the scientific journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

A 2020 study by researchers at the University of Portsmouth in England, found little difference in the therapeutic benefits between robot dogs and real dogs.

The researchers had 34 children, ages 11 and 12, play with two real dogs and an AI-powered dog and measured their responses. Children who were allowed to choose between the real and robot dogs spent more time with the robot, the study found.

While the children said they preferred playing with the real dogs, they expressed more positive emotions after playing with the robot. More children said they’d be sad if the robot dog was taken away, according to the study.

The researchers said the results show that robot animals could be “a useful alternative to traditional animal therapy.”

Danielle Robinson, a certified dog trainer, said she was “disheartened” by the study.

“The pet’s owner learns to bond with the pet’s uniqueness, which cannot be replicated by a mechanical, non-living being,” said Ms. Robinson, who cared for the fighting dogs seized from former NFL player Michael Vick at Best Friends Animal Society. “People who adopt an AI pet would miss out on the bonding that happens when someone cares for another living being.”

In 2016, Danish researchers studied adult interactions between a real dog, a robotic pet and a toy animal. While at first, participants communicated with the real dog and robot dog equally, over time they reduced their interaction and only constantly communicated with the live animal.

Sales of robot pets have risen in recent years, growing 8.4% between 2018 and 2022, according to data from Fact.MR, a market research company. Fact.MR predicts that sales of artificial intelligence pets will grow by 12.3% over the next decade, exceeding $2.9 billion by 2033.

But the real thing still dominates. Americans spent $136.8 billion on real pets last year, according to data from the American Pet Products Association.

Dr. Castro said he sees a place for both robots and the real thing.

In particular, he said, the robots can assist dementia patients who may forget things like food, water or walks.

“The elderly need help and these pets can be better than regular pets because they can be voice-activated and call 911 if there is an emergency. Those are life-saving abilities that can literally help people,” he said.

A 2021 study gave patients with mild-to-moderate dementia a robotic cat four times a week for 12 sessions and found that the interactions improved the patients’ mood, including boosting their ability to pay attention and talk.

Another study in 2016 found that a robot baby pet seal improved dementia patients’ mental health by reducing their stress and anxiety levels.

Other research has indicated that children with autism spectrum disorder can learn some skills and behavior from robots better than from humans or animal pets. The predictable and repeatable nature of interaction with a robot — the very thing that may make them less-than-lifelike for some pet owners — makes them good at engaging with children with autism.

In the end, Dr. Castro said, the price will determine the widespread adoption of AI pets. A basic toy robot pet can cost about $20 to $50, but more advanced pets with AI technology can run between $3,000 and $10,000.

“When the first cell phones came out, they cost $1,000 and were the size of bricks,” he said. “As the technology advanced, they became cheaper and cheaper and the more adoption they got.”

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