Robot Dogs Will Replace Pets in Super-Dense Cities

By Kiona Smith-Strickland on at

Keeping a pet healthy requires resources and open space, and in the cities of the future both may be at such a premium that live pets will become a thing of the past. Australian researcher Jean-Loup Rault suggests says robotic and virtual-reality pets may replace the real thing.

In a study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, Rault predicts that as urban populations grow the cities of the future may not offer enough living space for 9.5 billion people and their faithful pets, and he claims that technology may offer lower-maintenance replacements in the form of robotic dogs or virtual-reality pet simulators.

Nothing Like the Real Thing?

It’s not yet clear whether robotic pets can actually replace real ones. Humans do have a knack for ascribing life and feelings to inanimate objects – just spend five minutes talking to anyone who owns a boat.

So it’s no surprise that over the years, studies have found that people do interact with robotic pets, and virtual ones, in some of the same ways that they interact with real, live pets. That’s especially true of children, which is also no surprise; children’s imaginations have breathed life and personality into their toys for millennia: dolls, action figures, stuffed animals, puppets, and shiny robot dogs.

Adults react strongly to robot pets, too. Since Sony closed the last repair clinics for its Aibo robot dog a year ago, Aibo owners in Japan have held funerals for their robotic pets when they finally broke down. On the other hand, some studies show that while even adults treat robotic dogs as if they’re real to some extent, they’re still biased in favour of real animals. In a 2008 study, undergraduate students said more positive things about real dogs, and gave directions in a higher voice register, which is usually reserved for friendly, affectionate interactions.

Even Rault acknowledges that people seem to feel less responsibility to care for robotic or virtual pets than real ones. Just look at the short, brutal life of the average Tamagotchi. Most of them died repeatedly due to neglect, and some owners treated their virtual pets badly just to see how they would turn out. Tamagotchi’s designers thought that owners would form a relationship with their virtual pet that could somehow be separated from its appearance and even its physical presence. Forming a real bond may depend on a physical body, though. Kids associate stuffed dogs with friendship, but they associate dogs in a video game with entertainment, according to research published earlier this year. That may explain why players of Nintendogs say the game provides some companionship, but “significantly less” than a real dog or cat.

Science agrees that looks and touch are key to our relationship with pets, and it’s starting to explain why. A study in the late 1980s found that petting a dog could help lower a patient’s blood pressure. More recent research shows that looking a dog in the eyes can boost levels of oxytocin (a hormone involved in social bonding), in both the person and the dog.

The Future of Urban Dogs

For the moment, about 37 per cent of US households include a dog, and about 30 per cent have a cat. There’s some overlap between the two, so that about half of all households have at least one pet. Meanwhile, economic growth in Asian markets has boosted pet ownership among increasingly affluent consumers in China, Japan, Korea, and other countries. Pets remain popular in Europe, as well: in the UK in particular 24 per cent of households have dogs, and 18 per cent have cats, according to the PFMA.

“Yet it is difficult to imagine how more than half of the project 9.5 billion people of 2050 could still keep pets,” Rault wrote in a recent paper in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

However, to see how dogs might fit into the crowded megacities of the future, just look at Brazil. Around 85 per cent of Brazilians live in huge, densely populated cities like Rio de Janeiro, and the country is home to 20 million small dogs. In fact, Brazil has more small dogs per capita than any other country in the world. According to research firm Euromonitor, that’s because Brazil’s growing middle class, especially its young city-dwelling professionals, really love their dogs.

Additionally, more cities are incorporating pedestrian-friendly features and urban green spaces into their city planning, both conditions which add up to more pet-friendly settings for urban dog owners. So are dogs and cats a thing of the past, as Rault predicts? Probably not yet — but his point is well taken: as cities get denser in the future, space will be at a premium we can’t imagine today.

Image: Kleuske via Wikimedia Commons