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Replacing Live Pets with Robots: Ethical Considerations


Certain ethical considerations come with replacing live pets with robots. Yes, robot pets are great companion alternatives for individuals who are no longer or not capable of taking care of the robots’ real-life counterparts but that is not to say there are no implications and concerns that may come in doing so.

In this article, we dissect what these issues may be specifically towards the elderly, children, and society as a whole. By discussing such topics, all individuals may be properly equipped with knowledge, caution, and responsibility before deciding on making the switch from real-life pets to robot pets.

Implications and Considerations Towards Children

Replacing Live Pets with Robots: Ethical Considerations

In a study conducted in 2020, children 11-12 years of age were asked to complete a questionnaire about their biophilic beliefs and attitudes to dogs and robots before they engaged in separate free-play, non-goal-directed, and non-therapeutic sessions with the two. The test results show that the children spent more time interacting with Mi-Ro-E the robot than the therapy dog.

Respondents expressed their preference for the robot as overall enjoyment and positive emotions were higher than their interaction with the dog. It can be inferred that the level of interaction and engagement the robot showed towards children as opposed to the dog was met more with positive evaluations than the latter. Thus, the results suggest that robots, or Mi-Ro-E, may be a useful and suitable alternative for children’s interventions and therapy.

While this is true and backed up by a study, the emotional value that a real-life pet cannot be replaced by robots or a robot pet. While robot pets can offer similar benefits to their owners, the complexity and emotional aspect that real pets offer simply cannot be engineered by robot pets. The implication and concern that needs to be considered here are how children will respond to the lack of emotions robots or robot pets have as compared to living pets.

Unlike real pets, robots cannot respond to the emotions of the owner or user. It is limited in its ability to decipher whether an owner is happy, sad, or angry. With that, an emotional bond cannot be formed as deeply as a real pet.

With that, parents and adults must be able to manage the expectations of children with regard to the emotional exchange and relationship robots and robot pets offer compared to live pets. By doing so, children can tell what the limitations are for robots and robot pets, and can look at them as ‘serious toys’ rather than ‘living toys’.

Implications and Considerations Towards Elderly People

Replacing Live Pets with Robots: Ethical Considerations

On the other hand, robot pets have a different effect on elderly people, especially those who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia related illnesses. Studies show that elderly and seniors tend to form an emotional bond with the robot pets they are given.

Study participants have reported that in owning the robot pets, they tend to reminisce and remember past experiences of similar instances from owning a real pet and other memorable animal experiences. Other factors such as isolation, depression, and loneliness also contribute to the emotional attachment they form with robots or robot pets.

Therefore, there are plenty of advantages and benefits that robots and robot pet companions offer to the elderly. However, frustration can also arise should they fail to get the desired response from the robot pet, especially if they tend to associate it with past experiences and interactions with real animals. These include the lack of emotional response, limited or lack of play response, or the difference in its tangible features. It’s also important to note that at this age, seniors and older adult owners may have episodes of confusion wherein they may see the robot pet as a real one.

However, studies do indicate that the majority of seniors and the elderly have a positive response to robot pets. There are also instances wherein individuals who used to fear real dogs or animals are now receptive to their robot pet counterparts. While the general reception is positive, it still pays to be cautious and careful of possible concerns and implications that may arise. With that said, it would be good to intervene in cases that require it and to clearly establish that the robot pet is a completely new companion different from what the person may have owned before.

Implications and Considerations Towards Society

Replacing Live Pets with Robots: Ethical Considerations

The main purpose of robots and robot pets is to provide companionship — may it be through play, entertainment, or mere presence. Through this, robot pets have shown great benefits and advantages to their owners such as comfort, enjoyment, and even improvement in the overall well-being of a person.

However, there are ethical considerations that arise from this on a societal level if we leave robots and robot pets as a solution to depression, anxiety, isolation, and loneliness. By simply manufacturing and using robot pets to combat the aforementioned, a foreseeable result may be that people are encouraged to hand over a ‘big responsibility’ to these robot companions in providing proper care and companionship to individuals.

Humans and society may also be dependent on seeking companionship from robots, and this could possibly change how people will soon interact with their real-life counterparts. Without properly establishment and boundaries on what robots and robot pets can do and offer, society may find it difficult to process complex emotions and responses from their living counterparts.

To counter all these, boundaries and proper debriefing of what robots and robot pets are must be done. This is especially needed as technology continues to progress and manufacturers are coming up with more lifelike and advanced models. A clear distinction between what is AI and what is living is needed.

Final Note

Replacing Live Pets with Robots: Ethical Considerations

Although there are plenty of advantages and benefits that come with owning a robot pet, it is still important to be aware of the ethical considerations, societal implications, and concerns that may come with it. There comes a certain level of responsibility whether you own a real-life pet or a robot pet — albeit the context and gravity may be different, these are responsibilities nonetheless.

Linda Takahashi

American-born New Yorker Linda Johnson has been fascinated with robotic machines since she was a teenager, when her father, a surgeon, would introduce to her the machines that he used to perform keyhole surgeries. This interest led her to pursue a tech degree at the University of Washington, where she met Sota Takahashi. They married and now have two children. Linda’s father developed dementia later on and was given a robot pet as a companion. She saw how much having a robot pet friend helped her father, which is what led her to create this website and advocate to spread word about robot pets and how they can help both children and the elderly.

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