Robotic pets give reality new spin Lessons from latest toy rage enough to send shivers down sensitive spines

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2000

I hear that robotic dogs are the hot selling toys for this Christmas.

They are cute and clever. They don't piddle, bite, shed or provoke allergies.

They give me the willies.

Simulated pets are a scary thing. What is next? Simulated boyfriends and girlfriends?

Living things are very, very, very inconvenient. They demand attention, behave erratically, eat, excrete, damage carpet and eventually expire.

But companion animals also warn people their houses are on fire, travel hundreds of miles home when lost, mourn when their loved ones die and understand when you feel miserable and just need something warm and furry to snuggle up beside you.

When the toy manufacturers hawk their contraptions as "recognizing voices" and "showing emotion," they are pathetically mimicking the miraculous capabilities of real pets designed by a higher power.

The scenarios brewing in homes all over America remind me of Hans Christian Anderson's classic fairy tale, "The Nightingale."

In the story, the emperor of China captures and keeps a nightingale because of the beauty of its songs.

But then he receives a mechanical nightingale as a gift. Unlike the plain-plumaged real bird, it is encrusted with jewels and plays music whenever wound. Abandoned, the real bird flies away.

But years later, the fake bird lies broken and the emperor gravely ill.

The real nightingale returns and sings him back from death's door for old time's sake.

A year from now, a lot of these robo-dogs will be in the closet or the landfill, but that is not what really concerns me.

In the years to come, the robot dogs (and dolls and cats and ponies and fish ...) will become more and more sophisticated. At the same time the fabulous simulations we see on screen will become more and more believable.

How will future children discern the line between real and make believe?

Do we want children to learn that puppies run on batteries, never grow up, sit patiently on the shelf all day until summoned and can be tossed in the trash when they lose their novelty?

How would those lessons compare to what they would learn from a real pet, the "primitive" type that expresses pain when abused, rewards kindness and nurture with devotion and challenges a young caregiver to learn responsibility?

If "man's best friend" is made of plastic and metal, bought off the shelf and completely replaceable, what does that imply for other relationships?

If you destroy a robot dog, you can just buy another. So where is the incentive to curb violence in moments of anger? The sensitivity toward illness, aging and death? Can people be junked and replaced, too, when they malfunction?

These robot dogs could be just the start of a trend. When children raised with mechanical pets grow up, they might want to carry the concept farther.

Think of the potential for customized dates. Few things are messier than the trials and tribulations of human courtship. If people could design and program romantic partners, life would be much easier:

No more worry that you are too ugly, boring, poor or obnoxious to attract anyone sober. No more nagging from your grandparents about your love life. No more hassles about fidelity, jealousy, respect, communication or commitment.

Prince or Princess Charming, perfect eye candy, could remain quietly in the back closet until you were in the mood to bring them out to play.

As an old-fashioned, 20th-century gal, I find the possibility appalling.

But in the long run, the trend away from living creatures toward artificial simulations could have a profound benefit. It could put an abrupt stop to the increase of the human population.

Imagine cute babies and adorable children who never puke, whine or become teenagers. No stretch marks, no labor pains, no diapers, no puberty, no college tuition payments.

After all, aren't children the biggest inconvenience of all?

Nevertheless, I think I'll keep the ones I've got.

Shana Loshbaugh is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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