Robo Lassie, Please (beeep) Come Home!

by Marjorie Dorfman

Technology has improved our lives in almost every aspect, but have we ever really thought about how has it has impacted human feelings and experience? Consider robotic pets as symbols of the emotional connection between people and their pets. Try, whether you like animals or not, and read on for some interesting facts about an amazing and unexpected phenomenon.

When I was a kid, back in the days when Abraham Lincoln was president, I recall being fascinated by the new horror movie sensation of the day, the robot GOG. He walked, talked and was often in bad spirits, (kind of like a bad hair day, only in metal). His alloyed arms threatened havoc and general mayhem to the cast of actors and all of us kids glued to our theater seats as he ran amok in the celluloid laboratory of Hollywood illusion.

They say that art imitates life, and boy does it ever. GOG would seem tame and even laughable today compared to some of the things Robosapien and his metallic buddies can do. And that goes for their pets too! We’ve all come a long way from the innocuous stuffed bunnies and frogs that sat silently with us on our beds as children. Now pets live, interact and touch our lives in ways never before imagined.

Robo pets have proven to be much more than the proverbial flash in the toy industry pan. Although their conception may be rooted in the classic robot idea, the pets have crossed an unexpected threshold joining human intimacy with technology. In fact, their creation and utilization have been boons to two vital elements in our mortality chain: preschoolers and the elderly. Some of these toys include Furbi, Aibo by Sony and Poo-Chi.

It is so odd that a metallic creation can evoke the same symbolic association as the real animal, that is, an emotional bond. In the case of children, their exposure to the toys of technology gives them a broader view of nature. In the case of the elderly, a real pet might prove too difficult to care for. With robo pets all of the psychological advantages of owning a pet can be had and even more. What Cocker Spaniel anywhere in the world can remind its master when it’s time to take medicine or when a friend’s birthday has arrived? Robo Lassie, that’s who!

In a recent demonstration for the Seattle press, a group of 3 to 5 year olds were given a Sony Aibo robot dog and a soft, plush black-lab puppy to play with while answering questions about the two. All but one of the children said that Aibo was not alive, but they all agreed that neither dog could feel pain because they were both toys. According to Batya Friedman, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, "one of the ways that children learn to be responsible for others…is through their interactions with animals. As they develop those senses, they carry them over to their interactions with other people."

A research team at Purdue University concluded that the elderly reap many of the same benefits, from simple pleasure to lowered blood pressure, by holding and caring for the mechanical dogs. Once again according to Friedman, "I think the movements of the robotic dogs are pulling at us at a level below cognition.…Rationally, the kids don’t think they are alive and the elderly don’t think they are alive…but we are hopeful there will be real benefits for the elderly, who may no longer be capable of taking care of real animals."

According to UV professor of psychology, Peter Kahn, "the main point…is that these robotic interactions were simply in addition to rich interaction with nature and animals…It’s bringing kids into the technological world. The issue, I think, is they’re going to be replacing, to some extent, interactions with live animals. Once it becomes replacement, I think you have problems of moral dimensions."

In their own special way, these toys are heroes, providing a genuine service as well as bringing joy, comfort and sunshine into lives that might other wise be bereft.

What more could anyone want from a toy?

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2005