ZDNet has reported on new robotic ‘pets’, ‘ubiquitous,’ and inexpensive robots that can offer ’empathetic companionship.’ A replacement for Fluffy? Not likely.
Trouble is, as much as we want to think of even the concept of a very sophisticated ‘personal robot’, it’s really nothing more than a fancy stuffed animal – something that most kids realize is not a living thing by the time they’re 8. This, or perhaps as something for lazy people who want a pet but don’t want to feed it or clean up after it. These robots can’t ever express true empathy; they are merely programmed to act in ways that we interpret as being affectionate. It’s false love.
So while I don’t see a market for these things for adults (unless they’re incredibly eccentric and live in a ‘no pets’ apartment), the interesting thing I see is how children will react to them. Most of us grew up with a particular stuffed animal or toy that we were particularly attached to. We used our imaginations to pretend they were alive and had personalities.
What will happen when children grow up with a toy that reacts to them in a more sophisticated manner than the robotic or mechanical dolls of the past, robots that are not limited to a small set of predictable and repeatable algorithms? Will we find ourselves sacrificing imagination for the sake of simulation? Will we feel greater empathy and care for the artificial (or at least certain kinds of artificial constructs)?
Or will we feel more alienated? What will it mean when we feel our robo-pets ‘understand’ us more than our biological pets – or our friends do! – when all the robots are actually doing is simulating affection? Will we even care?
Of course, I doubt this will happen until the technology becomes cheap and common enough that you can purchase a relatively sophisticated robo-pet for the cost of a stuffed animal. As much as we can speculate about how technology is or isn’t alienating us, the fact remains that our children who grow up with new technologies that we were unable to experience will experience the world in a much different way – and with a much different perspective of our world – than we did when we were young and that may take us longer to adjust to when they become adults.