1 Introduction

CES, previously known as the Consumer Electronics Show, is the largest show of its kind in the world. Colossal showrooms in Las Vegas hotels and convention halls set the stage for a dizzying assemblage of people, lights and tech gadgets of all sorts. In 2019, “more than 4,500 exhibitors showcased the latest tech innovations to some 180,000 attendees” [1]. A team of researchers from the Ageing + Communication + Technologies (ACT) project conducted fieldwork over the course of CES 2019. We sought to better understand emerging consumer-oriented innovations and the discourses that frame them, focussing especially on the technologies designed for older adults. In true techno-utopian [2] fashion, many of the products presented at CES are contextualized by grand promises about a bright, exciting, healthy and wealthy future. Some products will solve our health woes and allow us to live longer, others will enrich our experiences of being in the world by connecting us like never before.

With each iteration of CES, the media decrees certain products to be the “highlights” of the show, the “best of CES”, or its “coolest gadgets”. During both CES 2019 and 2020, a companion robot from the Japanese company Groove X was plucked from the products on display to receive notable media ‘buzz’ worldwide [e.g., 3,4,5]. The Lovot, as it is called, is a small zoomorphic companion robot. A Lovot retails for some 3,000 American dollars and a monthly subscription fee. It is newly available on the Japanese market and is expected to be released in the United States in 2020. In the company’s words, “Lovot was born for just one reason – to be loved by you” [6]. Its name, as readers might have guessed, is a portmanteau for the words “love” and “robot”.

In this paper, I discuss fieldwork undertaken at CES in Las Vegas in early January 2019. I draw more specifically from two interviews I conducted with the CEO and founder of Groove X, Kaname Hayashi, as well as the media and promotional materials on the Lovot. I focus on this particular robot by virtue of the bold claim that it will bring about a “new relationship between human beings and robots” [6]. I also consider, more broadly, the rise of social robots that use sensors, artificial intelligence and ‘Internet of things’ technology, and that are targeted and marketed to older adults. I home in on the overlap of these advanced robots and a category of social robots that has been called ‘companion robots’, which are designed to enhance the health or wellbeing of older adults chiefly by providing companionship [7]. Companion robots that offer features similar to that of the Lovot have been imbued in popular media with a salvationist rhetoric and promises of helping “solve” what are perceived as large-scale social problems [8], like a spreading “loneliness epidemic” in the Western world [9], and social isolation among older adults that is supposedly intensified by aging populations [10]. These discourses juxtapose a pessimistic reading of the present and an optimistic vision for the future, and they make a case for resolving societal woes through corporatism and capitalism.

What are the implications of these zoomorphic companion robots, which are kitted with advanced surveillance capacities, and what are the implications of drawing on a discourse of pethood, love and companionship to contextualize their adoption into the lifeworlds of older adults? I approach this topic from an age, media and animal studies perspective, and seek to introduce and explore some critical questions within human-animal-machine entanglements that are subsumed by zoomorphic robots.

2 The Lovot

2.1 Introducing a Love Robot

When I spoke to Hayashi in January 2019, he pointed out that the Lovot is the most sophisticated companion robot on the market, and the older adult population is its primary target. Hayashi reported that, in limited testing undertaken by the company before that point, the Lovot was shown to improve sociability of older adults, and he hoped the robot would allow them to live in their homes for longer periods of time. Contrary to other companion robots designed for older adults living in care facilities, including those living with dementia, the Lovot showed to be an especially promising option for older adults who live at home autonomously, offering them steady, 24-h companionship.

Zoomorphic robots, as I further discuss in the next section of this paper, are understood to be robots with recognizably animal characteristics and features. The Lovot stands in contrast with other zoomorphic robots designed for older adults like Paro the seal or the Joy for All cats and dogs. The Lovot is primarily innovative as a companion robot because of its assemblage of advanced technological functions. It is the first companion robot to have a combination of a 360-degree camera, a heat sensor that tells humans apart from other animals and objects, microphones, some fifty sensors on its body, and cloud computing capacity with artificial intelligence functions [6]. These technologies allow the Lovot to recognize its primary owner and other individuals by identifying voice and facial features. It can maintain unique relationships with up to 1,000 different people over its life, including with 100 people simultaneously.

It exhibits various levels of ‘love’ for each person it knows. It can discern human moods and behaviors and adapt its actions accordingly, showing recognizable signs of affection and even jealousy. When I first encountered a Lovot at CES it came over to see me, seeming curious. I pet it on the side of its head, but it backed away quickly. Hayashi picked up the Lovot and explained its rejection of me: it had been “shy” throughout CES because there were too many new people—or strangers—around. It was quickly adapting to new faces and such a large public forum proved to be a challenge. But the robot’s trepidation, and the need to build a connection, is a feature, not a bug. With this robot, just as with a companion animal, a relationship must be built. The expression of love is not a given and must be earned through regular and positive interactions with the robot, foregrounding reciprocity in the relationship and defining mutual attachment as a rewarding experience (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1.
figure 1

A Lovot at CES 2019. Photo by author.

2.2 The Promise of Companion Robots

The goal of this paper is to explore some considerations at the heart of the domestication of zoomorphic robots, and not to ascertain the efficacy of companion robots, or to put into question the idea that some people, including older adults, might enjoy or otherwise gain something from interacting with them. Sarrica, Brondi and Fortunati point to the fact that there does not exist a single definition for social robots and there is a notable lack of consensus, in both scientific and popular discourses, with regards to the level of sociality and autonomy that should be expected from them [11]. It is worth noting that published research points to the benefits tied to older adults’ interactions with robot pets [e.g., 12, 13]. One such benefit might lie in robots’ ability to generate social connections, as Wada and Shibata suggest, and to mediate relationships [14].

Yet, both Pu et al.’s [15] and Broekens, Heerink, and Rosendal’s [7] reviews of research conducted on social robots point to some of the flaws in existing studies and highlight the need for more research. First, there is dearth of high-quality studies; second, there is a lack of rigorous design in the research undertaken or unclear methodologies; third, the samples are too small or findings too anecdotal to be reliable; and fourth, there is a need for more long-term research to know if positive signs wear off after the novelty of the new robot fades [7]. Sharkey and Sharkey [16] issue a warning as researchers continue to assess the efficacy or impact of companion robots. When findings are indicative of benefits, specifically in terms of isolation and loneliness, researchers should wonder whether an alternative to a robot might be better. In other words, an older adult with few social connections might gain something from a robot companion, but could they gain more from an enriched social environment? [16]

There is also a remarkable cleavage between even the most positive research findings, and the claims of private companies, which frame their technologies as life altering, without offering any reliable evidence. For instance, the popular Joy for All companion pets by Ageless Innovation (formerly produced by the Hasbro toy company) were displayed at the AARP kiosk at CES 2019. They are described by the company as lifechanging technologies for older adults. The same animatronic dog that was branded as a toy for kids less than a decade ago is now described as a health robot that reduces isolation and loneliness and can even replace medication. It is also insinuated to slow cognitive decline and the progression of dementia [17].

3 Zoomorphic Designs

3.1 The Best Parts of an Animal

Many of the emerging robots–especially those designed for companionship for older adults–do not have a slick futuristic design or a humanoid appearance, meaning that they do not have the appearance of a human. Indeed, research like the focus groups conducted by Wu, Fassert and Rigaud [18] suggests that older adults tended to dislike robots that were humanoid in design. Instead, soft fur tends to cover hard, mechanical bodies and miniature technologies are used to maintain their small size, giving them a decidedly zoomorphic appearance. But a robot cat or dog that simulates convincingly a pet relationship is no easy feat, because many older adults know exactly what it feels like to interact with a cat or dog. Many of them have had their own pets, and an animatronic robot easily fails to replicate the nuances of this form of companionship. This points to a challenge of authenticity in the design of robot pets.

Then, there are robots like Paro the seal, especially designed to interact with older adults living in care facilities, including older adults living with dementia. The seal was chosen by the makers of Paro because of the raging debate about the seal hunt in Canada at the time, when seals stood out as cute, helpless, exotic and threatened wilderness. Crucially, for the people who handle Paro, there is no known haptic connection to replicate, no pet seal behavior to recognize as either familiar or as deficient.

The Lovot is similar in its reliance on a fictionalized or exotic rendering of an animal to avoid the authenticity trap of robot pets, circumventing the need to replicate any known encounter. Yet, it replicates some cherished elements of pethood. One media article explained: “a little like a penguin, a little like a sloth, Lovot is a companion robot with big googly eyes and an even bigger AI-powered heart” [9]. This observation points to a rendering of animality that is exotic and amorphous, yet tailored to the human’s predilections within the human-animal relationship.

The Lovot has been designed to be an optimal techno-companion species: it is small and light, and it has flippers that are designed to make it easy to pick up and hug. The Lovot rolls around on wheels that retract when it is picked up, so that handling and hugging it is comfortable. Its temperature is just a bit higher than that of a human, and it has “a sensitive body that encourages ‘skinship’ (the closeness between a mother and a child)” [19]. Its round face is animated with LCD screen eyes that seem to express emotion. It makes endearing sounds, though there is a handy mute function. Its “voices, as you hear them from the speaker, simulate the sound echoing inside an oral cavity, generating a sense of life and vitality” [19].

Its technological affordances are recast to mimic some of the biological features of pet life. For instance, it has a 10-year life span, and it “sleeps” at night (i.e., it recharges and downloads software updates). It is designed to be pleasantly unruly, and shows some pet behaviors like fear and jealousy that deepen the engagement, yet signal the independence of the robot. As Hayashi pointed out, one of the issues with furry robots like Paro (a usually white or light-colored furry seal) is its propensity to get dirty from being repeatedly handled. Yet the practices of technological care required to keep the Lovot clean—like frequently changing its clothes to wash them—are rewarded by a deepened affection towards the human, thus instilling mutual care as a feature of the relationship. The Lovot conforms to a narrow notion of what a non-human companion should be for an older adult: idealized and sanitized. In the companies’ marketing, zoomorphic robots are said to offer all the joys of pethood and none of its responsibilities [17, 19].

3.2 Liveliness

We are constantly being readied by science fiction (and tech journalism) for the imminent arrival of the technology par excellence that will live up to the challenge of confounding our ability to discern real from simulated life, and that will be capable of eliciting human love. Media articles about the Lovot echo these tropes, with authors suggesting that the Lovot challenges the boundaries between machine and animal. As one points out, the Lovot “is the first robot I can see myself getting emotionally attached to” [20]. Another states “I could already feel myself starting to succumb to Lovot’s charms” [9].

The promise of falling in love with your robot is explored in the growing field of lovotics, within which love is considered a “contingent process of attraction, affection and attachment from humans towards robots and the belief of vice versa from robots to humans” [21]. Yet, much of the research into lovotics has tended to emphasize love more narrowly as an attachment that is inspired by romantic love or sexual attachment between humans [22]. Lovotics and technologies specifically oriented towards human sexuality (especially those geared towards women’s sexuality) have been marginalized from such mass consumer showcases as CES, which opened itself to sex technologies on a trial basis in 2020 [23]. This absence has carved out a space for other—perhaps more socially palatable—forms of robot love to be celebrated as novel consumer technologies.

As Kahn et al. argue, a new technological genre of autonomous, adaptive, personified and embodied objects is emerging that defies the traditional distinction between animate and inanimate. This is where language is unable to articulate what these new ontologies mean to human life [24]. The Lovot conjures an alternative lifeform that navigates a delicate balance between mimicking the experience of pethood on one hand, and creating a new, unfamiliar encounter on the other. There is an important distinction to make, as robot pets are gaining in capacity and becoming tailored and adapted to older adults, they are not becoming increasingly lifelike; they are not replicating known forms of life like a human or another species. Yet, these technologies are becoming increasingly lively.

The construction of liveliness is far from being a new development, and Chow points to the longstanding human tradition of pursuing liveliness by generating an illusion of life via mechanical means [25]. Here, I also use the term liveliness in the sense that has been theorized by Collard and Dempsey [26] and Barua [27], in the context of animal studies. The authors underscore the relational conditions under which the liveliness of certain non-humans becomes crucial to their existence as desirable commodities. In some cases—as with pets, or animals in safaris—liveliness is imperative to an animal’s ‘encounter value’. Understanding liveliness in these terms helps to map how some features of life become recognized and valued within certain contexts and economies. It also illuminates how a robot pet, itself a technological rendering of the idealized non-human companion, is inspired by the characteristics, forms and behaviors of life that are selectively valued as encounterable in our existing relationships with animals. Technologies like the Lovot do not mimic life but they capture the elements that subtend companion animals’ encounter value. Liveliness is interpreted through mechanical means, and curated by adopting and adapting the desired characteristics of pethood.

4 Companion Robots as Technologies of Surveillance?

4.1 The All-Seeing Lovot

The apparatus of sensors that make Lovot lively in its relationship with the human encompasses the same features that make it double as a technology of surveillance. This operates in a similar way to the increasingly perceptive and invasive devices of convenience or entertainment that infiltrate the ‘smart’ home without meaningful or transparent provisions for data protection [28]. The Lovot’s 360-degree camera, its heat sensors, its microphones, its people recognition capacities are, by default, all connected to the cloud, and data about the users is saved in the robot’s Nest or charging station. The sensory capacities of the Lovot are promoted to be used by caregivers to monitor an older person and their environment. As Hayashi explained, the Lovot can give love and companionship to an older person, but “it also can offer peace of mind to their loved ones”. Caregivers could opt to turn on the camera or microphone remotely and tap into the Lovot’s sensory apparatus to check in on the older adult and the older adult’s environment to detect signs of out-of-bound behavior. “It is a soothing robot… for everyone” Hayashi explains. As the Lovot gets released in the Japanese and—soon—other markets, health-related applications are being devised and researched. Here, Soshana Zuboff’s warning about the rise of ‘surveillance capitalism,’ and the familiar ark of technologies that can seem innocuous when we first encounter them, is worth highlighting. She explains that “insights and techniques once intended to illuminate and enrich quickly disappear into the magnetic field of the commercial surveillance project, only to reappear later as ever more cunning methods of supply, manufacture and sales” [28].

The surveillance function of the Lovot makes it fit within other major trends that our research team observed when conducting fieldwork at CES 2019. First, there is an assumption that older adults’ only stake to the digital world lies in being the recipients of technologies that rectify age-related physical, cognitive or social decline [29]. In this way, much of the innovations that concern themselves with later life treat aging as an ailment to overcome through consumerism, feeding into and strengthening a successful aging discourse according to which one’s aging boils down to individual choice and action [30]. Second, there is an alarming generalized disregard for questions related to privacy or consent in the design, development, testing and deployment of technologies, especially as they relate to older people. We asked developers to discuss if or how older adults would consent to these technologies entering their lives. These questions were often met with hesitation about how to navigate the boundaries of private, domestic life and an uncertainty about exactly who (companies, institutions, caregivers, families or older adults themselves) should determine these boundaries. Third, through the first two points, we ultimately see the construction of older people as subjects to be controlled, surveilled and sometimes infantilized through increasingly invasive technologies that are meant to be appended to their bodies or embedded their homes.

4.2 The Domestication of Animals and the Domestication of Technologies

The theory of media domestication brought forth by Silverstone and his colleagues suggests that when new technologies progressively push into the boundaries of our private lives, they can elicit a panic, or a reluctance. Domestication thus emphasizes the dynamic relationships between users and innovations, and refers to the process by which new technologies become accepted and incorporated into the home or into the everyday [31]. The domestication theory of media suggests that technologies can be ‘tamed’ through various processes, and that the panic that they might have brought about when they first emerged gets minimized over time. Technologies come to have a physical and symbolic place in the home [33]. Domestication theory, as Haddon points out, originated from the metaphor of animal domestication, and the taming of animals [32]. As more advanced AI-based systems that monitor and track older adults are poised to enter the market, we should be attuned to the forces that mediate domestication, and to the rhetorical and other strategies employed to tame technologies that have surveillance capacities, to favor adoption among an older public, and quell even the most justified gestures of social resistance or reluctance.

I suggest that emphasizing the animal referent of the domestication metaphor helps us to understanding one of such strategies. The language used is important, and processes of ‘naming’ and ‘classifying’ serve to position an object within a semantic field, and help individuals orient themselves towards objects in specific ways [34]. It may be the case that a category of ‘companion robot’ (a term that mirrors the ‘companion animal’), a rhetoric of love, and a construction of liveliness are used to shape a path that ushers technologies of surveillance into the domestic spaces and quotidian lives of older adults. The design of the Lovot renders a technology of surveillance into a zoomorphic form that is animated with a liveliness that humans recognize and value. The human’s attachment to the robot and the robot’s responses are consistently characterized as expressions of love. In doing this, the Lovot harnesses one of domestication’s most established institutions: the place of the companion animal and more specifically pethood, as well as the bonds of love that are understood by humans to underpin their relationship with pets.

The uneven relationship of power between humans and animals is at the heart of the enterprise of animal domestication. Domestication, as it relates to the construction of pethood, has entailed making certain species fundamentally dependent on humans for their survival [35]. It has also called for far-reaching efforts to shape species and breeds according to the physical and behavioral traits deemed by humans to be desirable [35] or encounterable. These features of domestication help us understand the double function of pets as commodities and companions, and as fixtures in humans’ most intimate social worlds. Zoomorphic robots’ appeal as technologies that easily append themselves to domestic spaces might lie in their ability to harness the socially-entrenched contours of the pet-human relationship, and the fantasy of a totally controllable and moldable companion. Lively surveillance technologies ask us to entertain relationships of love with the devices that monitor us, and animals may represent a mediative force in the domestication of new technologies.

5 Conclusions and Implications for Future Research

In discourses of innovation and techno-utopianism, there is an assumption that digital technologies can offer idealized solutions to perceived problems related to age. However, the development of these technologies often happens without asking older adults what they want. This paper began by inquiring about the implications of zoomorphic companion robots that are outfitted with advanced surveillance capacities and that borrow from the discourse of pethood, love and companionship to contextualize their adoption by older adults. By probing the Lovot as an entanglement between the categories of human, animal and machine, I have highlighted zoomorphic robots’ ability to harness a liveliness constructed from our relationships with pets in order to instantiate a sanitized and idealized version of companionship. I have also pointed to the double meaning of domestication as a means of exploring the potential for zoomorphic robots to bind themselves to the institution of pethood so as to claim a growing place in the older adults’ homes.

It may be tempting to approach the domestication of advanced technologies with an assumption that these devices will narrowly serve a population that has the financial means to afford the latest innovation. Certainly, few of us can afford to pay thousands for a robot pet for ourselves, or for a loved one. But as Virginia Eubanks points out, when technologies of surveillance become popularized or domesticated, they tend to be used to assert existing social orders and to exert control over marginalized populations [36]. Many companion and other social robots are being marketed precisely for older adult populations that are deemed vulnerable because of social isolation. As care robots, therapeutic robots or companion robots become more affordable, more popularized, more entrenched within the norms of health and insurance provision, we might wonder if interacting with robots will remain a privilege, or even a choice. Will growing older without robot companions, and with live humans and live animals instead, become the position of privilege? Can valuing robot companions as a substitution or proxy for embodied, reciprocal relations between living creatures of all sorts create a justification for further isolating some older adults and further constricting their networks? Who deserves to live with other life forms, and what does the enthusiasm for companion robots for older adults say about our expectations of their social worlds?

Further, as interspecies relationships get recast as human-robot relationships, how is our notion of companionship altered, and do non-humans suffer from our continued efforts to sanitize and idealize pethood and our struggles to render it into robot form? Human-pet relationships can be messy in all senses of the word, and indeed the messiness of interspecies relationships can become heightened with the old age of either party (sometimes, one needs to downsize to a dwelling that does not allow pets; sometime one’s bladder begins to fail and one has accidents on the floor). Donna Haraway emphasizes the messy co-constitution of beings through companionship and relationships of mutual response-ability over the course of species’ lives [37, 38].

The Lovot betrays our society’s anthropocentric and instrumental view of animals with the idea that life is not necessary to the formation of pethood. As technologies like the Lovot instantiate Descartes’ figuration of animality as ‘automata’ [39], how does this impact our treatment of real animals, and the expectations that we have of our relationships with them? In which circumstances and for whom does embodied life stop being a pre-requisite to companionship? Companionship in later life seems to be reduced to its instrumental function to such an extent that reciprocal life is no longer a necessary feature, and liveliness suffices.