This future might be coming sooner than you think. Just take Sony’s new Aibo for example. Aibo is an artificially intelligent robotic pet that can “learn” new things over time, and is capable of recognizing up to 100 different faces. It can even tell the difference between children and adults. Don’t let its sleek, silver body fool you into thinking it’s nothing but a mere toy. It can act like the real thing; following its owner excitedly, tail wagging, as it looks up with puppy dog eyes.

Okay, so it doesn’t really have the same emotion-filled, sparkle that real dogs have when they lock eyes with their owners, but no one can deny the fact that it is cute.

Just like real pets, Aibo loves being patted and he can be taught how to hi-five. It can even tell when you’re experiencing a bad day. How? The deep learning AI in the puppy can detect and appropriately respond to their owner’s voice commands and facial expressions. When it detects that you have had a particularly bad day at work, it would become more docile and not bother you. Needless to say, this is a pet that will pick up on your personality traits and use that to adjust themselves.
This is both a welcome yet equally disturbing thought for some people.

A History of Virtual Pets

Before Aibo, people were playing with Tamagotchi—these were virtual pets encased in small, keychain-like devices. As its owner, you have the task of feeding, bathing, and caring for your digital buddy. Should you fail to do these responsibilities, your Tamagotchi will die. A very grim reality that many children of that time had to deal with—but, unlike losing real pets that can cause emotional distress for a period of time—one simply needed to reboot the Tamagotchi and start all over again.

No stress, no real responsibilities.

The toy sold over 76 million units when it was first launched back in 1996 and still remains popular at present.

Too Close for Comfort? Emotional Attachments to AI Pets

Then came the furbies and a slew of other robotic pets that people were immediately drawn to; with some even preferring them over the real thing. There is a psychological explanation for this phenomena, explains psychologist and professor emerita, Gail Melson from the Purdue University. She has studied the relationship between humans and robots, concluding that people end up forming a bond with AI pets because we are all inherently social creatures.

She proposed that humans have evolved to be attuned to other life forms—even those outside of their own kind. We have also been conditioned to see the characteristic of life even in inanimate objects. This is something we can observe in how children interacted with Aibo. Whilst they treated the dog differently from a real one, displaying understanding that it was nothing more than a toy, they also developed an emotional attachment to it. For example, the children thought that harming or throwing the robot dog out was wrong.

The Robot Pet Army

The Robot Pet Army

Aibo isn’t the only AI pet gaining attention globally. We also have Lovots—a name that combines “love” and “robot”. This creation is a system made up of artificial intelligence, sensors, wheels to help it move around, and moving puppy-dog eyes, wings that’s capable of flapping to express emotion, and was designed to actually respond and mimic human emotions.

These Lovots come from Groove X, which is a Japanese start up founded by Kaname Hayashi. Yes, that’s the same person behind Softbank’s Pepper robot.

So, what are these robots for?

Well, much like Aibo, they’re here to provide humans with company and LOVE. At the very least, the robotic perception of love. Whilst it may not be able to function in the same way as your computer—don’t expect it to start doing schoolwork or cover for you at work during sick days—they can still be fun to have around. In fact, there are people who do say that these Lovots bring them a sense of joy and even helps their moods become better.

Just imagine these cute little things wheeling towards you after a long, hard day at work. If you live alone, this simple greeting can certainly be heartwarming. That said, the Lovot is also capable of emitting heat and will react to the hugs that you give it. You can even opt to dress them up, make them even cuter, but all that comes at a price. $3,100 to be exact.

What makes Aibo and Lovots capable of eliciting this sense of fondness from humans?

Experts say that it’s the physical reaction and the responses that they provide. These are often overlooked aspects of bonding. Just imagine hugging someone and they gave you no response whatsoever—you might as well have hugged your coat rack or a vending machine. A lot of affection can be expressed non-verbally.

That said, the challenge for AI pet developers is creating more appropriate responses. In Lovot’s cases, flapping its arms excitedly whenever it receives hugs or any form of physical affection is effective. It’s cute and it sparks joy in those who own them. The fact that it can move around and follow you, much like Aibo, further cements that cute factor which plenty of people will inevitably be drawn to. For children, these AI pets can provide them with hours of entertainment—perhaps enough to get their parents to “invest” in them.

In the future, we might even find AI pets that are capable of teaching children basic knowledge and skills. But can they truly take the place of actual, living pets? Not quite. Whilst they can act the part, they can never be like the real thing. For example, you can’t bring Aibo to the dog park or take it to the beach with you for a swim. Lovelot will not be able to give you kisses and cuddles like your pets can. They will not have the same quirks and personalities that living animals have.