Don’t try to replace pets with robots, but make robots more like service animals

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Robots are artificially intelligent machines that look like an animal (usually a cat or a dog, but they can be any animal). There are currently numerous robots on the market that are being sold to consumers as “pets” or companions. There is an especially arduous effort to reassure caregivers by purchasing these robots for older adults to replace their deceased or abandoned pets.

Animal lovers will tell you that they would rather have nothing but a robot as a pet. While a robot can be programmed to simulate the actions of a real animal, people know it is a fake.

There should be a fulcrum from the buddy robot marketing strategy – which has deep ethical issues related to replacing the emotional bond between living beings – to meet the needs currently being met by service animals.

In my research on the effects of human-animal bonding on human health, participants point out the reciprocity of their relationship with pets. Humans shower the animal with love, delicious food, cuddling, scratching and petting, and the animal in turn responds with unconditional love. The vast majority also say that the non-human animals in their lives are family members that are essential to their happiness and wellbeing.

It is condescending to present a robot to an adult and suggest that it will take the place of a loved one – whether that loved one is human or not.

Tombot robot dogs are marketed to help elderly people with dementia.

New markets

However, there is a huge and as yet untapped market for robots and other social robots to take on the role of service robots. Let’s call them Serv-U-Bots. These personally Service robots are different from those designed to replace people in some manufacturing and service sectors.

Serv-U-Bots would be similar to a robotic animal – small, portable, and meant for personal use – and would use many of the technologies already built into social robots. These onboard sensors could include cameras for observation, microphones for audio recording, temperature sensors, communication technologies, and even autonomous movements that move based on programming rather than human input.



Read more: Robots: Using Technology to Monitor Older Adults Raises Privacy Concerns


Serv-U-Bots would be programmed to replace service animals that are currently being raised and trained to aid human mobility and independence. However, this is an expensive undertaking.

Many organizations that offer service animals have breeding programs, training facilities, and huge budgets that are subsidized by donors or returned to governments, insurance companies, or families. Canadian Guide Dogs complete approximately 23 dogs per year from their training program at an average operating cost of more than $ 74,300 per dog.

These dogs are not considered pets by the organizations that breed and train them. They are service dogs trained to provide assistance. If the current placement ends due to the death of the person they helped or for any other reason, they are usually returned to the organization for other placement.

Robots as service animals

But how about replacing service dogs with Serv-U-Bots: social robots programmed to perform service-related functions? We have the technological know-how to develop Serv-U-Bots that can increase independence through programming that can warn when the toast is burning, the kettle is boiling, the doorbell rings and so on. They could even take on the roles of medical alert dogs that can detect medical problems like a seizure, low blood sugar, or alert the user of the presence of allergens.

Service robots can help people care for their companions.
(Shutterstock)

Serv-U-Bots could even help older adults keep enjoying the company of animals by feeding them, checking for water, and even cleaning the litter box.

If a car can be programmed to drive itself, avoiding obstacles and life forms, why not program a Serv-U-Bot to guide people around town? They could also be programmed to enable actual interactions with living things. This technology can save and enrich lives and help people be mobile.

Serv-U-Bots would be able to support the independence and mobility needs of humans without exploiting non-human animals.



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