Robopets, which behave like real-life dogs and cats, can offer similar health benefits to humans, researchers found in a review published Thursday in the International Journal of Older People Nursing.
Just like Fido, they’ll listen, play, and snuggle up to you. And just like Fido, they might be able to help ease the grating pain of loneliness, which study after study has called an epidemic, particularly for elderly people.
That might sound dystopian—like the beginning of the end for living, breathing furry friends—but Rebecca Abbott, a researcher at the University of Exeter Medical School and lead author of the new report, said that the results offer promising hope for those suffering from loneliness.
“In care homes, we know that loneliness for some can be an issue,” she said. “Having a robopet to talk to, or talk about with someone, can be one of the ways which may help reduce loneliness.”
Abbott and her colleagues collected data from 19 surveys conducted over the past 15 years, looking at the interactions between about 900 senior citizens in nursing homes in Britain and their caretakers and family members. Most of the studies used Paro, an interactive robotic seal that “remembers” previous actions and will respond to behavioral cues. Other robopets studied included Justocat (cat), Aibo (dog), and Cuddler (bear).
She and her colleagues were surprised to find that not only were robopets welcomed, they worked. The study reported that residents found they reduced agitation and allowed them to express their emotions. Many patients had previously described themselves as “restless or sad” or “bored” but found robopets a welcome distraction, injecting their lives with “humor and play” and allowing them not only a way to talk and express themselves, but also to engage in conversation with others—a crucial way for elderly citizens to connect with others and maintain health.
Intriguingly, many residents found themselves stroking, hugging, and kissing the robopets—fully aware that the pets weren’t real. Some even reported developing deep emotional attachments, with one woman noting, “I know it is an inanimate object but I can’t help but love her.”
This isn’t the first time humans have developed feelings, even become attached, to robotic creatures. Remember the Tamagotchi trend of the '90s, when every kid checked digital monitors frequently to make sure they were feeding and interacting with a digital pet avatar before it “died.”
And robopets have long held promise as a companion for their elderly, with a Wired story quoting Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, saying the puppy Aibo “elicits similar responses [to living pets], even while people are quite aware of the differences… It has a nice animal shape. People appreciate the eyes and the tail.”
In fact, humans have long held deep emotional bonds with their robots, even if they’re not meant to be companions. One Georgia Tech study of 30 “committed” users found that two-thirds of them had gone so far as to name their devices and half had assigned a gender; one person went so far as to introduce their Roomba to their parents. And a live demonstration of people interacting with a Pleo dinosaur robot showed humans were hesitant—downright disturbed—to “torture” their robots.
Abbott’s study found that that emotional attachment was just as strong with the elderly and their robopets, to the point where some could only communicate their pain to the robopet. One quote from one of the reports from a nursing home stood out to Abbott and her team, of a resident who was suffering from dementia-induced anxiety and used a robopet to “verbalize how she was feeling… she could see that she was thinking about her thoughts and she wanted to pass it on to somebody.”
That’s not to say robotpets were a magical cure-all to elderly loneliness. Some residents found the robotic antics predictable and boring.
Abbott pointed out that many of these studies looked at robopets for a limited amount of time.“We still don’t know about the long-term use of robopets,” Abbott said. “Does the novelty wear off?”
What’s more, Abbott’s study looked at a slim population of people who had access to the cutting-edge technology. Robopets aren’t projected to be an expensive investment compared to their real-life versions (in fact, they might be cheaper in the long run because robots don’t need to eat or relieve themselves), but they’re available only in limited quantities, which means that only a certain subset of the population has access to them.
That said, robopets offer some surprising benefits. There’s no pet dander to deal with, so if you’ve ever wistfully gazed at a pet owner giggling with their pup and sighed because your immune system can’t handle the onslaught of pet hair, robopets could offer an alternative (remember the Tamagotchis?).
The lack of pet fur all over the place also means that they’re cleaner. In a shared living community like a nursing home, that means less cleanup and frustration, and more bonding time.
Further studies are necessary to understand if having previously had a pet might help prime and prepare people to be more receptive to robopets.
“We found a wide variation in the response to them: men and women, residents living with dementia and those without dementia all appeared to engage with robopets,” Abbott said. “It may be that people who had pets before going into the care home might be more receptive, but we don’t know that answer. It also might depend on the type of robopet.”
Abbott is ultimately confident that we are entering the age of the robopet lovingly tackling their owner as they step in their house, saying that while the concept might seem uncomfortable to some, the “technology means that there will be likely more choice of robopets in the future and they may become more affordable too.”
And that goes far beyond grandma and grandpa, Abbott predicted. “There is no reason why the responses from the older adults in care homes wouldn’t be the same for children and adults in other locations.”