Much has been said about the human capacity to bond. John Bowlby's attachment theory is based on our primal need to bond with caregivers in order to survive as helpless infants (which we all were at one point--no matter how self-sufficient we like to think we are now).
This begs the question: Is our ability to bond so powerful that we can do it digitally, or have we become so lonely that we will form a bond with any inanimate thing that offers us an affinity signal?
Robot dogs have already become popular in Japan, where Sony's entry to the market, the Aibo virtual home companion, has been so beloved that Popular Science recently ran a story about owners holding funerals for the dogs when their circuitry failed.
There's even been a study demonstrating similar health benefits in elderly subjects after interacting with robotic pets and with actual pets (and by that term I mean dogs-you remember, the panting, slobbering four-legged mammals who occasionally chew your favorite shoes or pee on your Turkish rug).
A University of Melbourne paper examines the possible benefits of robot pets in terms of the global population explosion. Written by Dr Jean-Loup Rault and appearing in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, the paper suggests that eating and breathing pets will become a luxury in an overpopulated world where resources could be taxed beyond the point where so many live pets can be supported.
His math is fairly simple: the expectation is that 10 billion people will live on earth just 35 years from now, and there are concerns about whether water and food supplies will be available for so many people. Rault points out that connecting with people on Facebook probably would have sounded crazy just one generation ago, adding: "It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation."
Another aspect of robot pets the paper explores is whether they might impact the treatment of living animals. Rault wonders whether it might give people a greater appreciation of mammals that require water, food, and exercise, and interaction just like we do.
He adds that it's not too far-fetched to imagine that robot pets of the future could utilize artificial intelligence, learning to process information and respond to it.
"When engineers work on robotic dogs, they work on social intelligence, they address what people need from their dogs: companionship, love, obedience, dependence," Rault said, adding: "Robots can, without a doubt, trigger human emotions. If artificial pets can produce the same benefits we get from live pets, does that mean that our emotional bond with animals is really just an image that we project on to our pets?"
Follow Will Hector on Twitter: @WriterWithHeart
(Sources: University of Melbourne; Science Daily)