Can Robot Dogs Do Humanity Any Good?

I believe so, but only where real dogs aren't appropriate; they're machines, not sentient beings.


Most robot dogs are are not very doglike. There is some superficial similarity in movement and appearance, and they respond to some basic stimuli in a largely predictable fashion — but nothing as lifelike as the fictional models of Doctor Who’s K-9 or Muffit from the original Battlestar Galactica.

I was in New Zealand when Furbys came out, and I waited a long time for them to reach stores near me. When I got one it took me about half a day to see every sensor it had and every behavioral response it would make based on those stimuli and some specific time delays. Then I lost interest and gave it away. I bought a state-of-the-art “animatronic” toy cat from Japan, with similar results. My dog was not fooled for even a split second and ignored the “cat” no matter what it did. I am an animal behaviorist and can happily watch a guppy, a goat, or pretty much any kind of animal for hours on end. But a Furby, or any robot, bores me quickly.

The current state of the art, Sony’s AIBO, is unusually complex and programmable, and yet it still gives me no feeling that it is a being rather than an interesting toy — and one that becomes less interesting once you work out it’s predictable reaction to any given stimulus.

Robot dogs used with the elderly

Yet a recent study found that robot dogs can help elderly in the same way real dogs do. Given my personal feeling — that these robots fail to replicate the basic quality of a dog, as a sentient being you have a one-to-one relationship with — I had to wonder about that.

The research aims to assist people by providing a form of social contact, which suggests that the human clients are intended to relate to the AIBO in a manner broadly similar to a real dog. However, looking more closely at the experiments, a pattern seems to emerge — the visits by the person with the AIBO are brief and infrequent, not more than a half an hour per week, and the focus is sometimes on persons with impaired cognition, such as from forms of dementia.

AIBO with other groups

Other studies find that while people err towards giving AIBOs dog-like qualities, they generally show a strong awareness that real dogs are more sensitive and sentient, and they show a preference for a real dog. For example, a study of children at Purdue found only 20 percent considered the AIBO to be “alive,” and children close to spend more time near a real dog versus an AIBO. Another study found that children and adults stopped playing with an AIBO much sooner than a puppy. This suggests to me that many people initially try to orient to the AIBO like a dog, but ultimately cannot sustain that kind of interaction style or form that kind of attachment.

When I look at the forums frequented by enthusiastic Furby or AIBO owners, I will be honest — I see a lot of delusion. I see people reporting responses and understandings by their toy that it is simply not capable of. Such as a Furby knowing it is lost and calling for someone to come and find it (rather than simply making one of the many responses determined by the passage of random periods of time), or feeling that the robot knows who they are as an individual and has feelings for them.

And yet even these committed and highly engaged owners generally do not, according to a University of Washington study, consider their robot to have “moral standing” — so they do not feel it would be wrong to destroy or discard it like any other object.

What robot dogs mean to me

In my opinion robot dogs are simply not anywhere near being in the same category as real dogs. They are not beings in their own right. Their responses to stimuli are programmable but ultimately predetermined. They do not recognize and cannot become attached to specific individuals.

That said, in the situations where a robot dog can be substituted for a real dog, it is probably a good idea to do so. That is, with individuals who are responding to surface features of novelty and responsiveness, and are not in situations (physically or mentally) where a real human-animal bond is likely to develop. Under these conditions the robots are a simple and safe alternative in situations where a dog might become bored or stressed.

I just wish the researchers themselves would show a greater appreciation that just because a toy looks like a dog does not mean it is acting and interacting like a dog — and so robots should not be assumed to provide social attachment or support to most people over any kind of extended period. I wish they would question whether it is meaningful to suggest people “attach” to these objects at all, and question whether it is healthy to do so when it involves a misperception. For example, is covering an AIBO in fur, such that a dementia patient genuinely perceives it as being a dog, really causing a positive effect that is justified by the deception?

If an AIBO is functioning largely as a toy with some surface novelty and responsiveness, might there be a better way of delivering these features than a dog-like model? Especially one, at this stage, solicits behaviors it cannot truly understand or reciprocate? It may be fine for those people who understand they are role-playing with a toy, but it raises issues of deception and maladaptive attachment for those who do not.

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About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).

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