Robots are everywhere. You might rely on a Rumba to keep your floors free of debris, watch am animated movie about a friendly, huggable robot, or be entertained by the interaction of a digital assistant such as Siri or Cortana. But what about the possibility of a robot pet? From affordability to appeal to grandchildren, there are a number of reasons why a robot pet can be a good match for older adults.
1. Robotic pets cost less than the real thing.
The Joy for All Companion Cat, launched in November 2015 by Hasbro, is a pet robot intended for the fun and enjoyment of older adults, while other robot pets, such as a robot harp seal pup called PARO, developed in Japan, serve a therapeutic purpose. These two represent a wide range of costs, from $99 for the cat to $5,000 and up for the therapeutic seal pup.
In contrast, the lifetime cost of cat ownership is estimated at about $7,600.
2. Robot pets interact, but won’t run away.
The Joy for All Cat is the size and shape of an adult Persian cat. It remains in a reclined, seated position but meows, purrs, makes gestures, and even rolls over to have its belly rubbed. Likewise, the PARO seal is portable, huggable, and responds to being stroked and talked to – but it can’t go anywhere on its own. PARO is equipped with a sense web across its body, making it sensitive to all touch and sound, while the Joy for All Cat has five sensors to respond to touch and one for motion.
3. Robot pets can increase wellbeing.
To develop the Joy for All Cat, a team led by Ted Fischer, vice president of business development at Hasbro, talked to a wide range of older adults in both residential and independent living communities. “Interactive companionship was a central theme,” he says. The PARO seal, which has been used in assisted living facilities, has been shown to improve the mood and social engagement of those who pet it and play with it, according to recent research published in Psychological Services.
4. You’re already familiar with robots.
University of Cornell robotics expert Ross Knepper, PhD points out that many people already have robots in their homes, such as a Roomba vaccuum or a child’s toy. Many people give names to their helper robots, or anthropomorphize them in conversation. But when it comes to the question of companion animals, he says, “It’s a tricky market because people have very sophisticated expectations of animals.” However, he adds, a cat that mostly sits, purrs, and allows you to caress her might just be within those expectations.
The challenge may be that what people find charming in their own animals is their spontaneous displays of loyalty or affection – while robots have a more limited repertoire. Having reasonable expectations is key, he says.
5. A live pet isn’t an option.
Not every senior living community is suitable for a live pet, notes veterinarian Bruce Kornreich, DVM, PhD, Associate Director for Education and Outreach at the Feline Health Center at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine. Kornreich and colleagues formed a collaboration, between the Tompkins County SPCA and a nearby residential living facility called CatsforComfort, The organization offers senior living residents the chance to adopt carefully screened cats.
Cats that were up for adoption through the program were sedentary, older, affectionate, and less aggressive than others at the shelter, says Kornreich, who was pleasantly surprised to find the residential facility’s administration supported pet ownership. But, he adds, well-designed robot pets could also be options for people who aren’t able to have live pets.
Robot pets don’t carry diseases or trigger allergies. They won’t outlive you, and are not a threat to anyone they meet.
6. You control the robot pet.
Even the best-trained animal can wake you up from a sound sleep with a loud noise or make a mess in your home. With robotic pets, you can ensure that doesn’t happen. The Joy for All cat has three settings – on, mute-on, and off – allowing you to choose how much cat noise you want during the day.
7. It’s a conversation starter.
When you bring PARO into a group of older adults in a residential living facility, “it is an ice breaker,” says robotics researcher Selma Sabanovic, PhD, assistant professor in the school of informatics and computing at Indiana University in Bloomington. “The robot is something to talk to each other and the staff about,” she says. People gather around PARO and talk about pets they once had, or what the robot’s sounds might mean.
8. Your grandchildren will love it.
Although PARO and the Joy for All Cat are the only animal robots currently on the market for older adults, Sabanovic has done research to find out what kinds of robots older adults with depression might want to take home. In discussion, many of the people she interviewed commented that a robot animal at home would also be fun and interesting for their grandchildren.
Cory Kidd, founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based Catalia Health, is among those looking to bring social robots into the medical sphere. Kidd’s team is working on a personal medical assistant robot named Mabu that can discuss and access complicated health information.
Could your robot pet one day be an entertaining personal medical assistant with the ability to read your vital signs and connect to your medical team? Only time will tell. In the meantime, if you need a robot cat to pet, with the thrum of a deep purr on your knees, or an interactive harp seal pup to hug, current technology has you covered.