This morning I was interviewed on the Australian national breakfast television program the Today show, together with our new family pet, the robot dinosaur Pleo. The video is below.
[UPDATE:] This TV segment is also available on the NineMSN website in better quality.
While it makes for a nice fun TV segment, I actually think that there is something fundamentally important at work here. As a futurist, one of the most important issues I consider is the evolving relationship between people and technology. Throughout history, that relationship has often been problematic, with notably the Luddites smashing machines, and more recently just about everyone having experienced immense frustration with their computers not doing what they’re supposed to do.
Following the ground laid by Sony’s robotic dog Aibo, Pleo is the first generation of commercial robotic pets that acts so we can form genuine emotional ties with it. I’ve written before about emotional robots such as Paro the seal and been interviewed in Newsday on how emotional robots are used to great effect in therapy and aged care. Pleo has reached the threshold of being a fun and interactive “lifeform” (as the manufacturer Ugobe describes it), and also is highly affordable at US$350 (which may seem expensive for a toy, but is very cheap compared with for example visits to the vet for real live pets).
The heart of the matter is interactivity and responsiveness. Watching a pet do tricks does not bond us to it. However when it responds to our voice and petting, follows us around, and recognizes us, we can and do form emotional ties, as evidenced by the response I’ve seen to Pleo wherever I’ve taken it. In fact I’ve just heard that when a little later in the show this morning the host held Pleo by the tail, the channel got callers from viewers complaining about the way he was torturing the poor robot.
From this point we will see new generations of robot pets that are increasingly interactive and engaging. My niece Amy looks forward to when we have robot monkeys to swing around the room and play with. A real monkey might be a problem to keep at home, but it becomes feasible if you can switch it at the end of the day. There is still some way to go from animating a flat-footed dinosaur to creating a realistic primate, but we will get there.
Beyond this, robotic pets will be not be just to play with, but tutors, teaching children about the world around them. Those children who have these kinds of robot pets/ teachers in their lives will be advantaged. Of course there is never a substitute for human interaction and genuine love. But if that is complemented by other stimulating and engaging interaction, that’s all for the good.