In his excellent 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the basis of the film "Bladerunner"), science fiction author Philip K. Dick writes about a world with virtually no real, living animals. Robotic animals are "kept" by their owners, and given the same feelings and affection associated with real animals:
He ascended ... to the covered pasture whereon his electric sheep "grazed." Whereon it, sophisticated piece of hardware that it was, chomped away in simulated contentment, bamboozling the other tenants of the building.
(Read more about Philip K. Dick's electric sheep)
It turns out that several studies show that robotic pets really do invoke the same feelings and reactions as real pets.
In a recent study at the University of Missouri, levels of cortisol dropped among adults who petted AIBO, Sony's dog-shaped robot. Cortisol is a hormone that indicates stress. AIBO has some convincing dog-like behaviors; it responds when stroked, chases a ball and perks up when it hears a familiar voice.
Purdue psychologist Gail Melson gave AIBO to children ages 7 to 15 for a few play periods; 70 percent felt the robot could be a good companion, like a pet. When AIBOs were provided to elderly residents in independent living facilities for six weeks, residents reported being less depressed and lonely.
In Japan, a robotic baby seal named Paro is being used in Nanto City, which has an elderly population that numbers 26 percent of all residents. Paro was developed at a cost of $10 million by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.
Dr. Takanori Shibata, the creator of Paro, has found that interaction with cute, cuddly robots lowered stress, elevated moods and decreased depression. Paro also encouraged communication and social behavior among subjects. Shibata found that brain activity increased 50 percent in patients with dementia after just twenty minutes with Paro.
New robots like Paro are typical of today's helpful robots. The TMSUK robot helpfully carries your bags in the mall, soothing autonomous fish-bots swim gracefully in acquariums and iRobot's new Scooba keeps you from household drudgery.
Read more about how Robotic pets offer health benefits or Japan's robotic companions. See also the Paro mental commit robot for psychological enrichment website.
(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission from Technovelgy.com - where science meets fiction.)