Pets are known all over the world as a cure to loneliness. In most cases, these pets are living, breathing beings capable of love and affection.
But what if you were presented with a robotic dog one day that, too, is capable of feeling love and affection?
Would you accept it as a pet? Or would a robotic dog with a plastic body be too much for you to take in?
While some may grow to love a pet robot, some may feel uneasy by a robot being able to 'feel' emotions.
Rahatul Amin Anonto - a Bangladeshi computer engineer - is studying the effect these robotic pets can have on the human mind.
At the centre of Anonto's study is AIBO, a series of robotic dogs designed and manufactured by Sony.
These robotic dogs are capable of walking and running around the house, understanding and responding to English and Japanese as well as various listed commands and mapping out the entire house they live in.
As humanity is delving deep into an era of increased psychological disenchantments and heightened feelings of isolation or abandonment, where sticking together sounds like too much work, robotic dogs such as AIBO can be a trustworthy companion when human interaction is hard to find.
"I was always very enthusiastic about robotics and I had been working with robots for a while even before I applied to the University of Manitoba. After starting my Masters, my professor introduced me to various robots and we chose AIBO as our test subject."
Being a social robot, AIBO's main purpose is to accompany people. This 'dog' is meant to help people who identify themselves as lonely have a good time and cure loneliness.
"Many people are allergic to dogs and have hygiene concerns. But these robotic dogs, which are very much like a puppy, do not have any such issues. This makes it possible for a niche group to be able to keep dogs as pets," Anonto said when asked about why someone should choose robotic dogs over living pets.
Anonto completed his undergraduate studies in Computer Science with a specialisation in Underwater Robotics and Software Engineering from Brac University.
He started looking for options to pursue a Master's degree in Canada, which landed him an educational opportunity at the Department of Computer Science in University of Manitoba where he is currently researching human-robot interaction.
"I was always very enthusiastic about robotics and I had been working with robots for a while even before I applied to the University of Manitoba. After starting my Masters, my professor introduced me to various robots and we chose AIBO as our test subject. One of the main reasons why we chose AIBO is due to the lack of research work relating to this," Anonto detailed.
Much like a living dog, AIBO can be 'trained' to understand human language through its extremely advanced AI system.
Common tricks such as high fives can be easily taught to AIBO and it will sit down and do so. It also cries if it does not see its human companion for a while.
AIBO can also understand petting as there are sensors on the top part of its body and head. Petting AIBO also reassures it that its human companion is here and stops it from worrying.
According to Anonto, AIBO is a great addition to anyone's life who is living alone because of its truly unconditional nature of the human-pet relationship.
His research largely focuses on people living alone or those who are lonely.
Till now, AIBO is officially available only in the US and Japan and it retails for a hefty $3,000.
Anonto opined that despite the hefty price, people will still be willing to get a robotic dog as keeping a living dog means dealing with insurance and healthcare expenses, which can ultimately hike the expenditure to as high as $10,000 per annum.
We asked Anonto to talk some more about the essence of his research. He explained that they are recruiting people in Manitoba who are living alone and identify as lonely.
These respondents are given one AIBO each for eight weeks so Anonto and his team can conduct weekly interviews and record readings and data.
He continued, "We are hoping to see positive changes in these readings by the time they give us AIBO back. We want to know the psychological reason behind them choosing to live alone, why they identify as lonely and why they did not get a pet before. We also want information on whether they are accepting the robotic dog into their lives and if these robots can curb their loneliness. Our aim is to see whether social robots are useful."
Anonto and his team have already started working with their first respondent and they hope to get the initial results by the end of July.
The 'dogs', however, are not cuddly like a living dog. AIBO is made out of plastic - smooth to the caress but neither soft nor furry.
So we asked Anonto if this will hinder the human-pet relationship as one of the most mentally rewarding aspects about having a puppy or a grown up dog is its soft, furry, and embraceable factor.
Answering, he said, "It sure does feel like plastic but if you pet the robotic dog and talk to him, he will exude various emotional responses such as blinking and making puppy sounds. But yes, AIBO lacks the cuddly aspect. Fortunately, we are developing robotic dogs that are cuddly and more like a living dog."
"AIBO has a light that lights up when it is lonely. Despite being a robot, it will understand your love," he added.
When loneliness is viewed as a bigger picture, feelings of isolation or abandonment are linked to both mental and physical health concerns.
Numerous accounts of health-related challenges such as addiction, chronic illnesses, obesity, anxiety, and depression have stemmed from struggles with loneliness.
According to a 2020 Guardian report, dogs, and pets in general, have proved to reduce stress, anxiety, general feelings of sadness, and depressive states in human beings due to their affectionate nature.
Good mental health, in turn, keeps physical health in check by keeping blood pressure levels optimal.
So if we only take a pet's, both robot and living, affectionate nature into consideration, will it be enough to blur the lines between a robotic and living dog?
Or will the 'living/breathing' aspect outstrip the psychological value of such robotic pets?
Whatever the answer may be, it is undeniable that people are becoming lonelier with the passage of time and if help comes in the form of adorable technology, humanity may not be barking up the wrong tree after all.