I want my robot pet / by jean-francois dubeau

The robot pet I want

I like to spend time thinking about the future. It’s probably a side effect of being a born-again optimist. Tomorrow is going to be brimming with cool stuff and I want to see it and experience it all.



Earlier this week I posted an article about how Sony’s Aibos were a dying race. It’s a bit of a heartbreaking story of how these silly robot dogs can’t be repaired anymore unless pieces are cannibalized from other Aibos. Of course, Sony’s dogs aren’t exactly the most advanced artificial intelligence and aren’t exactly adapted to how today’s level of connectivity integrates with our lives, but owners had gotten attached to their robo-pets and it’s sad to see them die. A friend even compared it to the first death of a man-made species.

This all got me thinking about what the next artificial pets might be like and, at first, I wasn’t too inspired by what I came up with. That is, until I started reading an article about wearables.

Our pets, our assistants

One of the things I think is going to be interesting is how everything is connected these days. As much as I loathe the term, the ‘internet of things’ might end up being what breathes new life into the idea of robotic pets.

Biological pets tend to have an interesting level of interaction. Dogs will want to play, cats will demand belly rubs, etc. You can certainly program these behaviours into an Aibo but bio-pets have a way of acting this way that seems more intuitive. Normally aloof cats will spend time with their owners when their sick, dogs feed off their owners energy during playtime, etc. Robo-pets just don’t have the empathy or senses to do that sort of thing. At least, not on their own.

This is where connectivity comes into play.

There’s already been amazing strides done in the field of facial recognition and sorting emotion visually by computers. So that’s already gained. However, what if that information could be assisted by other factors? What if your robot dog could also feel your heartbeat and blood pressure? Know how well you’re doing in the games you’re playing? Be aware if you’ve received bad news? What if your pet could act on that?

Imagine if you will the following scenario: You get home from work to your robot dog. Fido has already pulled out your running shoes and left them somewhere adorably obvious. Your robot dog wants to go for a walk. Today, this would be a pre-programmed scenario that randomly occurs to give the illusion that your artificial pet makes decisions on its own. Tomorrow, it will do that because it knows, connecting through your wearables (Fitbit, phone, watch, etc.) that you haven’t been very active today and should probably go burn a few calories. Fido’s already checked the weather and knows it’s going to be a nice evening for a walk and makes the appropriate suggestion.

The iDog has also noticed you’re out of milk and a few other essentials, by communicating with your refrigerator of course, and uploaded both a short grocery list and a path so that your walk will take you close to a grocery store. Going through what you usually listen to when walking, it even offers a playlist with both familiar tunes and a few new things it thinks you might enjoy.

Unfortunately, you will be walking with Fido alone tonight because the dog has checked on any of your walking buddies and their robo-pets have informed it that their owners are busy tonight. Maybe next time.

An adorable little bridge

A large share of the previous scenario is taken from smart houses and electronic assistant pipe dreams. It’s also inspired by technology that is already here. Smart houses is a decades old concept that seems to be having difficulty getting the engine going.

Fido fixes this.

By both giving a body and a personality to your smart house, we anthropomorphize it and make it more real. Buying a smart oven is no longer about purchasing the latest pseudo-useless tech gizmo; it’s getting your dog a new toy and a new way to interact with you.

Disembodied voices and pop-up messages on our phones lack the warmth and familiarity necessary to make the kind of connection we, as humans, depend upon for interactivity. As the Aibo, a clearly inferior type of artificial intelligence has shown however, slap on a cute exterior and suddenly people get attached.

If my phone tells me I should go for a walk it’s easy to ignore it and go back to playing video games. If iMittens, my robot cat pulls at my pant leg demanding I go do a bit of exercise it’s a much more personal interaction that is more likely to illicit the proper, healthy response.

Your pet, your decisions

The Aibo article exposed a problem that will be solved just in time to see the last Sony robot dog perish; the lack of replacement pieces. As things break down on the Aibo, they can’t be replaced, dooming the pet to increasing levels of debilitation and eventually ‘death’.

3D printer will eventually fix this. In fact, 3D printing is an important part of what might make this kind of artificial pet a mainstream attraction.

Let’s quickly gloss over how replacement parts are less of an issue when you can just print a new one if you have the necessary equipment (or get one printed at a local 3D print shop which I’m sure will be opening across North America any time now). Wait. Did I say ‘you’ can just print one? Ridiculous. Assuming you’re printing at home, your pet will print it’s own replacement part and then instruct you on how to install it.

There are obviously pieces that will never be that easy to replace. Complex electronic parts and chips are a good example, but hopefully, if these pets are well constructed, their ‘consciousness’ will be transferable to a new chassis and the pet will never die but instead improve with every new model.

What’s really exciting is how 3D printing will allow us to personalize our cyberpets to suit our taste. This is something we’re bound to see in a wide variety of markets but it’s particularly important for the robot pets. It’s that last ingredient that the Aibo, smart houses and electronic personal assistants lack. It makes the pet uniquely yours. 

The inner workings or endoskeleton (the shiny part of the Terminator) of your pet will be more standard and might come in a variety of sizes with various options (again, think smart phone). It’s the exoskeleton that opens up the doors to making each pet unique to it’s owner. 3D printing allows for some basic level of customization from having access to vast libraries of ‘skins’ for your pet to making your own if you’re skilled in such things. A whole cottage industry of pet skin designers could flourish with artists offering increasingly more complex designs with LED enhancements, custom paint jobs, cuddly furs, etc.

Once all is said and done, I think the world of artificial pets is almost ready for a comeback and one that might see these devices become an important part of the human experience going forward. We’re not quite there yet of course. Efficient and sturdy bodies capable of mobility are still a ways off, but with Boston Dynamic’s Spot as well as seeing non-traditional types of mobility take up increasing amounts of real-estate in people’s consciousness (think BB8 for the upcoming Star Wars movie) and we can see the possibilities right over the horizon.

Best part is, designing my own robot pet is as close as I’ll probably get to living the dream promised in The Life Engineered.

What? You didn’t think I’d miss a chance to plug my own book did you?