, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 305-318

The March of the robot dogs

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Abstract

Following the success of Sony Corporation's`AIBO,' robot cats and dogs are multiplyingrapidly. ``Robot pets'' employing sophisticatedartificial intelligence and animatronictechnologies are now being marketed as toys andcompanions by a number of large consumerelectronics corporations.

It is often suggested in popular writing aboutthese devices that they could play a worthwhilerole in serving the needs of an increasinglyaging and socially isolated population. Robotcompanions, shaped like familiar householdpets, could comfort and entertain lonely olderpersons. This goal is misguided and unethical. While there are a number of apparent benefitsthat might be thought to accrue from ownershipof a robot pet, the majority and the mostimportant of these are predicated on mistaking, at a conscious or unconscious level,the robot for a real animal. For an individualto benefit significantly from ownership of arobot pet they must systematically deludethemselves regarding the real nature of theirrelation with the animal. It requiressentimentality of a morally deplorable sort. Indulging in such sentimentality violates a(weak) duty that we have to ourselves toapprehend the world accurately. The design andmanufacture of these robots is unethical in sofar as it presupposes or encourages thisdelusion.

The invention of robot pets heralds thearrival of what might be called ``ersatzcompanions'' more generally. That is, ofdevices that are designed to engage in andreplicate significant social and emotionalrelationships. The advent of robot dogs offersa valuable opportunity to think about the worthof such companions, the proper place of robots in society and the value we should place on ourrelationships with them.