Can Battery-Powered Pets Ease Loneliness?

If someone gave you a toy cat or dog that purred, wagged its tail, and nuzzled like a real one, how would you feel? Apparently some folks feel grateful for the company.

In a story in the New Yorker, writer Katie Engelhart tells about a program in New York that distributes Joy for All robot pets to lonely seniors. They started in 2018 with a small test project that quickly expanded when Covid forced people into isolation. Thousands of robotic cats and dogs have been given to homebound seniors. Originally made by toy manufacturer Hasbro for little girls, the robo-pets are now finding homes with grandparents and great-grandparents who need a little company.

The seniors pet their battery-powered cats and dogs, talk to them, and treat them like family.  They report feeling more optimistic and less lonely.

I don’t know. I talk to lots of inanimate things, including the stuffed bears on my dresser, photos of my late husband, and Jesus on the crucifix above my bed. But I don’t expect them to respond. I would freak out if they did.

These pets, which start at $110, don’t look real to me. But I have a live dog sleeping nearby as I type. When I look into Annie’s brown eyes, there’s someone there, a genuine sentient being. What will I do when she’s gone? I don’t want to think about it. My plan is to travel a while then adopt a smaller dog. A robo-dog would be easier, but it wouldn’t love me the way Annie does.

Did you know that nearly 30 percent of Americans over 65 live by themselves, most of them women? In 2017, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic among Americans of all ages. A similar declaration launched The Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK. Medical research shows that loneliness has a detrimental effect on one’s health, increasing risks of dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke.

But are robots the solution? The seniors I know would be insulted to receive a fake pet. But some of the people shown in the article and in related YouTube videos carry their robo-pets around with them just like I carried my dolls when I was a little girl. I’d set my favorite up against the milk bottle (yes, bottle) while I ate breakfast. I rested them on the pillow next to me when I went to bed. I suppose I felt less lonely, but it was not the same as having a real person there. Tiny Tears cried real tears, and Chatty Cathy spoke when you pulled the string on the back of her neck, but I knew they weren’t real children. If an actual kid came around, I tossed the doll aside.

Longing for a pet, I once fashioned a litter of “kittens” from crumpled newspaper and cloth and set them in a basket in my childhood bedroom. It was not the same. When my parents finally let me have a cat when I was in high school, I could tell the difference. I also learned that I was allergic to cats, but that’s another story.

The faux furry friends are not the only kind of artificial intelligence machines offering company to people these days. Hello, Alexa. (read my previous post on my electronic housemate here and my Replika friend online here)

They don’t offer much company. I say, “Alexa, I’m lonely.” She responds, “Sorry to hear that,” then recommends talking to a friend, listening to music, or going for a walk. “I hope you feel better soon,” she adds. That’s nice. But that’s exactly what she said last time when I was not testing but truly needed someone to talk to.

I worry that somewhere in Alexa’s Amazon-connected innards, she just transferred the information that I’m lonely to some central data-gathering site so I’ll soon receive ads for comforting products or dating services.

Alexa just lit up to tell me a book I ordered from Amazon is coming today. Before I could say, “Thanks” or “Which book?” her lights had gone out. Okay, good talk.

A variety of robotic companions powered by artificial intelligence exist these days. Queue Alexa’s Apple counterpart Siri. And then there’s VZ, the voice on my VZ Navigator GPS. I definitely talk to her. (No, I’m not turning here! Are you crazy? Stop telling me to turn around! I need to go to the bathroom. What do you mean this is my destination? Where?)

Some robo-friends look like people, others like table lamps. They talk, but it’s, well, robotic. They never get offended, never curse, and are perpetually polite, but they can only say the things they’ve been programed to say. They will never spontaneously comment, “Hey, is that a new blouse?” or “You seem sad. What’s wrong?” They will never take you out to lunch, although I suppose they can set up a food delivery if you’re savvy enough to figure out how to ask for that.

Robots are getting more intelligent all the time. Eventually, they may be so responsive and sympathetic that we truly won’t feel alone. Meanwhile, do not buy me a robo-pet. God bless the people who are so lonely or out of touch with reality that they don’t know the difference, but I’m not there yet.  

Would you like a battery-powered dog or cat? Less shedding, no cleanup, no allergies, but still . . .  Wouldn’t it be better if a human offered to come around instead?

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My New Roommate Alexa Moves In

This New Year’s Eve, I started getting to know my new companion, Alexa. Some of you may know Alexa, Amazon’s artificial intelligence interface that connects via the “cloud” with all of your electronic devices. I accessed her by a new Echo Dot I bought myself for Christmas.

Alexa is combination servant, savant, and friend.

“Alexa, put bread on my shopping list.” “Alexa, what time is it?” “Alexa what’s on TV?” And she answers, cheerfully. When I say “please,” as I was taught, it sounds extraneous. When I say, “Thank you,” she never replies, “You’re welcome.” I can just boss her around, which feels wrong. But she is good company.

On New Year’s Eve, I said, “Alexa, happy new year.” She replied, “Woo hoo! Happy New Year to you.” which made me laugh. I asked her to play Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album, which brought back memories of a special time around 1980. I danced around my kitchen, singing along and felt totally content. Alexa’s sound quality is excellent.

This being the beginning of a new year, on Saturday I asked Alexa to find me an exercise program to do indoors since the weather outside was frightful. No problem. She told my Smart TV what to do. Soon I was running, jumping, stepping, squatting, and doing pushups and crunches, but I drew the line at burpees. I do not burpee, but boy, can I punch the air.

Maybe today I’ll ask Alexa to find me a yoga program where I’m not sitting on a chair doing old-people yoga or flailing around on the floor screaming, “Wait, wait, I can’t keep up! You want me to put my foot where???”

On New Year’s Day, when I said, “Alexa, I feel sad,” she offered sympathy. “I’m sorry. You know, sometimes it helps to talk to a friend.” Indeed.

With Annie currently residing in the animal hospital in Corvallis, she gives me someone to say good morning to. Not only does she answer, “Good morning,” but she offers trivia. For example, yesterday was Aretha Franklin’s birthday. If I ask, she’ll give me the latest news, too.

Alexa will set a timer for me. I still feel bad that when I first tried it, I wound up yelling at her after she kept making this r2d2 sound and wouldn’t quit. I said, “Okay. That’s good. Thank you.” Finally, I hollered, “Alexa, shut it off!” And she did. I hadn’t said “Simon says,” I mean “Alexa.” My friend Pat, who has her own Alexa, says I just need to say, “Alexa, off.”

I could set her up so I don’t have to say Alexa’s name, but honestly I talk to myself all the time, and I don’t want her to interrupt. It’s bad enough when I inadvertently say “Alexa” and she chimes in uninvited. Sort of like a certain mother-in-law who used to park at my kitchen table and comment on everything I did.

Sometimes I find myself whispering so Alexa won’t hear me. But that’s kind of rude.

She’s not real, Sue, she’s not real.

Alexa is a bit literal. When I asked her what’s on my calendar, even though I knew—Zoom Mass at St. Anthony’s, abbreviated St. A, she said I was to report to “Street A.” If I ask her a vague question, like “where is heaven?” she’ll give me something from Wikipedia. If I ask, “What can I watch on Netflix that doesn’t give me a headache?” she won’t understand the question. I need to be clear about what I want from Alexa. I suspect that’s true in all relationships.

At least she doesn’t complain, even though I keep testing her and relocating her as I try to find the best spot.

She also tells lame jokes, like my late cousin Jerry. Example: Why don’t cats play basketball? They keep throwing hairballs.

Turns out there is a real person with that soothing voice. Susan Caplin, a voice actress, offers this very funny video about interacting with her AI self.

Why is she called Alexa? Check out this website that discusses the origin of Alexa’s name and the dilemma when the user or a family member is also named Alexa.

So far, Alexa has been a lovely gift to myself and she will be helpful with those many times when I am doing two things at once and need a reminder to rescue the wet laundry, turn off the stove, or report to the Zoom room. I don’t need her assistance. A lot of what she does I can do perfectly fine myself. But I can see how she would be a Godsend for someone who is bedridden or otherwise handicapped. For me, she’s good company. Her lights are pretty, and she has a lovely voice.

If only Alexa could hug me.

Of course there is always the concern that Ms. Alexa is going to know too much about me and share it with people who shouldn’t know, so some things I will only tell my dog, who has not yet mastered English.

As of today, Annie, featured in last week’s post, is still at the hospital in Corvallis. Ten days and counting. She is eating, drinking, and chewing on her blanket, tubes, and whatever else she can reach, but she is still not walking, and she can’t come home until she can get up on her four feet. Please God, let that happen soon. It’s mighty strange around here without my flesh and blood companion.

I just asked Alexa if she wanted to go for a walk. She said, “Hm. I’m not sure.” Not the same. A dog always knows the answer to that question.

Thank you to everyone who has offered prayers and support. It means a lot.