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 Originally made by toy manufacturer Hasbro for little girls, the robo-pets are now finding homes with grandparents and great-grandparents who need a little company.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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