Top
Living in the World

Is It Time for a Robopet?

How Animatronic Animals are Helping Cure Loneliness

Getty/frantic00

Robo-dog? Sounds straight out of a sci-fi movie. Technology has come a long way since the 1997 release of the Tamagotchi. Still, today robopets continue to bring comfort and cure loneliness.

In the summer of 1997, bouncing along a dirt road through the grasslands of Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, I was scolded by my boyfriend for feeding my pet. He simply could not understand why I would bring the little guy on our safari vacation.

Let me explain.

The pet was my Tamagotchi, a small egg-shaped device with a grayscale screen and three buttons. At various times during the day, when prompted by its beeps, I had to feed, play with, clean up after, and occasionally discipline the little one until he evolved into an “adult.” If I shirked my duties, a skull icon would appear onscreen to signify my Bad Mom status. And if I outright ignored the beeps, he could die. I had not taken my first digital pet’s needs seriously, and she had met her demise after only three days. I vowed to do better this time around. Which explains why―even though I was surrounded by Grant's gorgeous gazelles, Kirk's delightful dik-diks, and countless other African wildlife―I was looking down, pressing buttons on Aki Maita’s tiny toy.

I wasn’t the only one fascinated by digipets, of course. Ten million Tamagotchi were birthed in 1997, and Maita even won the satirical Ig Nobel Prize that year for “diverting millions of person-hours of work into the husbandry of virtual pets.” Yet, Tamagotchi kept selling, and even made a comeback in 2019—now with a price tag of $60 and sporting a color screen. Over eighty-seven million have lived among us, infuriating parents, teachers, and boyfriends alike.

At one point, a pet cemetery in southern England even set aside an area for burying electronic pets. And while some might find that idea ridiculous, I think it speaks to the potential emotionality of taking care of and losing another life―even one that is not carbon-based. For another example, consider Sony’s $3,000 furless dog robot. AIBO could develop from newborn puppy to adult, its personality shaped by interactions with their owner and environment. When Sony eventually shut down the project, progenitor Dr. Toshitada Doi staged a funeral for AIBO. Over 100 employees attended.

A new study has me reconsidering technopets. It suggests that animatronic animals can help aging populations who experience loneliness.

It’s well documented that loneliness can lead to depression, sleep problems, hypertension, cognitive impairment, and an increased risk of death. Many studies have confirmed that companion animals—such as dogs and cats—can decrease depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Unfortunately, many older adults cannot manage the physical or financial commitments a fluffy four-legged furball requires. Some may be reticent to adopt a pet fearing what will happen to it upon their death. Alzheimer’s and dementia can bring additional complications for living other species. And people who live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities may be prohibited from having animal companions at all.

Animatronic pets to the rescue! Study participants chose between a feline or canine companion. The only instruction provided was to treat the new arrival “as a pet.” Each person then filled out three surveys about their experience. The first was given upon receipt of the pet, then another 30 days later, and a final at 60 days. Results revealed that adults who interacted frequently with the pets indicated a decrease in loneliness plus improved mental wellbeing, resilience, and purpose. Interestingly, some participants described using their pets in social settings, which helped them improve their social interactions with other humans.

Excitingly, this tech is readily available. Costing between $50 and $100, these pets require no trips to the vet—just occasional battery replacement. No need to head to the shelter, of course, as these dogs and cats can be sent right through the mail to your lonely friend or family member.

[Read more on the science of touch.]

Using built-in sensor technology, animatronic animals respond directly to petting and motion. Leading manufacturer Ageless Innovation’s robocats meow and purr while their bodies vibrate. Robopups bark and move. Granted, neither will play fetch with you. Yet …

Animatronics and AI have progressed rapidly. Humanoid robots can climb stairs, read human emotions, and even grasp and move objects. The rolling, programmable, dog-ish MiRo boasts “six senses, eight degrees of freedom, an innovative brain-inspired operating system.” The possibilities seem endless, likely to delight all of us sci-fi loving animal lovers.

Admittedly, I crack up with laughter every time the Baby Yoda sitting on my desk raises his hand to use the Force. And while I join Elon Musk in his concern that artificial intelligence might pose a significant threat to humanity, I take some comfort knowing that even if my mind and body decline to the point where supporting animals in my home becomes impossible, I can still be surrounded by bionic four-leggeds. And by then, I bet they will fetch.

Read about embracing your inner child and learning to play.