Robot cats and other man-made companions could help Britain's elderly, according to a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The report recommends that autonomous devices could provide a variety of different services to older people, ranging from basic companionship to medical monitoring. Devices with the appropriate sensors could act as fire detectors, or flash lights when doorbells or phones ring.

"This is not constrained by the technological possibility of it so much as by the desire to do it -- and that is bound up with all sorts of social factors," said Professor Will Stewart of Southampton University, who contributed to the report, speaking to Reuters.

"It is not a complete replacement for your kid calling you once a week. What you want is continuous attention and that is very difficult," said Stewart.

Maybe older Brits could start with the Dream Cat Venus, an autonomous robotic feline that is already available for about $110 in Japan.

I'm also interested in how the right device could extend the companionship offered by an organic pet. Consider Huggable, a robotic teddy bear developed by MIT that seems to fit the bill specified by the Royal Academy of Engineering. It has full-body sensors for electric field, temperature and force, inertial measurement unit, cameras embedded in the eyes and microphones in the ears.

If you think that this is a rather science-fictional scenario, you're right. In Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? robotic pets are routinely used by most people. Perhaps the robotic cat repairman will become a common sight in retirement communities:

"...he had picked up the first malfunctioning animal for the day. An electric cat: it lay in the plastic dust-proof carrying cage in the rear of the truck and panted erratically. You'd almost think it was real, Isadore observed as he headed back to the Van Ness Pet Hospital - that carefully misnamed little enterprise which barely existed in the tough, competitive field of false-animal repair...

The electric mechanism, within its compellingly authentic-style gray pelt, gurgled and blew bubbles, its vidlenses glassy, its metal jaws locked together."

This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of Technovelgy.com.