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The history of robot pets stretches back to 1940 with the invention of Sparko the Robot Dog. Nearly a hundred years later, robot pets are still being developed and their mere presence has made a great cultural impact in society.
However, society’s reception of robot pets was not always the same. Similar to how robot pets continue to change, so do society’s views on them. With that said, let’s look at how robot pets have been received in different eras and societies since entering the market.
In 1940, man’s first mechanical best friend, Sparko, was created. The robot dog was marketed as “the must-have pet of the future”. Although the robot dog generated quite a buzz, it seemed that society (or at least America) was not yet ready for it.
Putting aside the general public’s perception that a dog (may it be a robot) should be cute and cuddly, they also expected a robot to be at the very least smart. Finding out that Sparko could only move its hind legs and had no other features to offer, the robot dog quickly lost market interest.
From then on, society had a general expectation that robot pets should be cuddly like their living counterparts and intelligent because they are robots. At this time and era, no other manufacturer had successfully developed a robot pet that was good enough to meet society’s standards. Thus, no formal “reception” of robot pets was formed except for the expectation that they must be adorable and smart.
After 50 years, Furby was invented and the market went wild for these cuddly owl-like robot pets. Their furry, fuzzy, and adorable appearance passed the standards of society on how a pet toy should look and they were perceived as intelligent robots because of their ability to develop language skills and speak “Furbish”. The commercial success of Furby helped catapult society’s reception of robot pets.
The general public now sees robot pets as adorable smart toys that can be given to kids. They look cute, are easy to use, and are fun to play with because of all the “smart” features that stationary toys cannot offer.
Not long after, Sony launched AIBO, which many considered to be the first robot dog in history because of its commercial success. AIBO was able to balance cute and futuristic. Its appearance still resembled a dog’s but it looked “futuristic” and smart enough to be considered as a “serious” smart robot pet. It was AIBO that introduced the concept of having artificial intelligence robots at home and helped shape society’s perception that robot pets can become “serious” toys.
After seeing society’s perception of robot pets change from “play toys” to “serious toys”, inventors and manufacturers saw this as an opportunity to come up with product lines geared toward an older market. A Japanese engineer, Dr. Takanori Shibata, created PARO — a robot pet seal that helps bring psychological enrichment and joy to senior citizens, especially those diagnosed with dementia. The success of PARO opened doors for more manufacturers to develop robot pet companions.
A great sector, especially senior citizens, started to view robot pets as companions while those working in healthcare saw them as another form of therapy animals. Hence, the cultural impact of robot pets started to shift from being toys to alternative companions.
As society grows fond of robot pets and witnesses the benefits of owning one, the reception of these robotic companions is starting to shift once again. For one, parts of society are starting to view robot pets as lifelong companions. This reception can be proved by the mere fact that more manufacturers are creating robot pets that exhibit lifelike features like farting or being more emotionally receptive.
On the other hand, there are parts of society that view robot pets as contributors to society or home living. While not explicitly labeling them as ‘servants’, new security and advanced features of robot pets lead them to be viewed by the public as “smart guardians” or “smart assistants” at home.
It’s amazing how the roles and society’s perception of robot pets changed. From being mere toys to becoming a companion, robot pets have truly evolved. As robot pets continue to be developed and the market demand increases, we can only expect that their cultural impact and how society views them will change again.