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Loneliness

Loneliness and Robo-pets

Can artificial pets help with loneliness and social isolation?

Key points

  • Thousands of robo-pets were used during the pandemic
  • Will the use of artificial pets cause nursing homes to take shortcuts?
  • Will the widespread use of robot-pets cause people to be treated like robots?

I have a cat for a pet. My present companion is the fourth feline to occupy my home in the last fifty years.

Arthur Dobrin
Source: Arthur Dobrin

Having a pet is strange to most of my friends in rural Kenya. For them, cats and dogs are workers. The work of cats is to keep mice at bay and the work of dogs is to stand guard.

My cats do a good job at keeping my house clear of mice, too, but that’s not why I have them. They are not employees, so to speak, but part of the family. I’ve loved each one in its own way. What they have given me with their purrs and meows, their rubbing against my leg and licking my hand, their sleeping curled up at the foot of the bed with me and my wife is intangible. It is joy and comfort in ways that are inconceivable to those in Kenya whose relationship to cats is simply for them to keep rodents out of the granary.

Pets require human attention that not everyone can provide. Those who are frail, infirm, or incapacitated may care about their pet but not care for it. As little as a cat demands, it needs to be fed, its litter changed, and brought to the vet for emergency visits.

Until recently, those who wanted a feline companion but could not for a variety of reasons have been deprived of the happiness that a good pet can bring. There is a powerful motive to connect with others, even non-human social creatures. But now, technological and artificial intelligence advances have made a simulacrum of a pet available. These robopets may not be flesh and bone, with consciousness, but the feelings of companionship they elicit are real to many who have interacted with them.

New York and Florida are so convinced that robopets can help in overcoming social isolation and loneliness that they provided thousands of artificial pets to vulnerable elderly citizens.

Can a robot substitute for the real thing? To find out, British researchers conducted a metanalysis of socially assistive robots, involving more than 1,500 participants across 33 countries. The results, while tentative, were generally positive.

However, not everyone is convinced. There are two issues that are raised by the analysis.

Taking the objections one at a time:

Some worry that the use of artificial pets will divert resources from more comprehensive care for these older adults. Robots are cheaper than salaries for caretakers, so there may be an inclination to substitute robots for people. A similar concern applies to relieving relatives and friends from the need to visit. Daily visits can become weekly and weekly visits monthly. These are real possibilities but aren’t strong enough objections to deprive those who may benefit from robot companionship from having it when they otherwise would have little or none at all.

Others look at robopets as long-term problems when—and the time is coming quickly—robots appear nearly living. It is difficult to resist anthropomorphizing inanimate objects that have faces and talk as if in a conversation. (I have an otherwise rational friend who, when Alexa doesn’t respond to his first command, introduces his second command with "Alexa, please...”) When the line between robots and humans gets blurred, the fear is not that we will treat robots as human, but we will treat humans as robots. This concern is a possibility, but it is a prediction. It is equally possible that humanlike robots will free people to treat others with more consideration, respect, and concern than they presently do as tedious tasks are eliminated.

So what to make of robopets? Caution is advisable but it need not stand in the way of taking advantage of new technology. Their utility depends on particular circumstances. They will be harmful when used by unscrupulous nursing homes, for example, and they may fray relationships of family and friends that are already in need of repair. But for many others who are socially isolated, they will be a boon, a way of making life more pleasant when so many other factors conspire against it. It is useful as an additional way for lonely people to stay connected to the world.

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