Realistic, high quality robotic cats and dogs have been around for quite a long time now. It’s interesting that you could claim that robotic cats and dogs are better than the real thing with the right person. I don’t know of any research on the subject so I’m going to think aloud while writing this article.
Robotic cats and dogs are essentially made for elderly people, some of whom are perhaps in the early stages of dementia. They may be incapable of looking after a real dog or cat and this is not for reasons of their own making. It is simply because in old age one’s senses and mobility deteriorate. And therefore a robotic substitute may work and I’m going to suggest that often they do work brilliantly well because of at least two reasons as follows.
Projecting one’s thoughts onto the robot
People are able to project their feelings onto a companion animal. They are able to imagine what that animal is like and what they are thinking. Animal guardians do this with living animals, the genuine article. It is very common for cats and dog owners to project their thoughts onto their companion animal. Also it is commonplace for cat and dog owners to anthropomorphise their companion animal. This means that they turn them into little people which is charming but which can on occasions cause problems in terms of understanding animal behaviour.
But the point that I’m getting to is that if a person is able to project their thoughts into the mind of a real animal and do the same thing with a robotic animal the robot comes alive. In effect they inject that robot with living tissue because it is in their imagination; a wonderful attribute to humans because you can imagine anything. And with a strong imagination you can indeed bring things alive.
Think about it. You read a book and you interpret the book with your imagination and so in your head you run a ‘movie’ and the characters on the written page become animated. This is the kind of process I’m referring to when elderly, infirm people with early-stage dementia handle a robotic cat or dog. That’s why they become so effective because they don’t need caring for like the real thing but they satisfy the person on an emotional level.
Petting is therapeutic
The second reason is that a good quality robotic cat feels nice to touch. You can pet these devices as you would a real animal. And in petting a creature you feel better, you feel connected and it is a therapeutic process. And as the person has brought their robot alive, the process of petting it comes alive as well.
Petting a cat robot might even be better than petting a real cat because you don’t have to worry about overdoing it or petting your cat in the wrong place which he dislikes. This can lead to a scratch. That can never happen with a robot unless they make them with claws and artificial intelligence! Everything you do is correct and no doubt the cat robot will purr back at you in thanks and contentment.
That purr is the last reason why they work because it is a very sonorous sound which makes you feel better and calmer.
Robotic cats and dogs have a place in society and I think they’re a very good idea. Margie Copenhaver, an eighty-three-year-old resident of Eagle Manor in Helena, Montana, USA, agrees with me. She said that her robotic dog, “Muffie” is good company and that she talks to her and she responds by talking back. She says that she’s a cutie and she’s very happy with her newfound robotic pet.
I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing her picture with Muffie on this page. The photograph is by Thom Bridge of Independent Record via AP.