Can robot animals help treat loneliness?

Katie Englehart writes about the problem of loneliness that afflict a large number of older people in the US.

Older people are more likely to live alone in the United States than in most other places in the world. Nearly thirty per cent of Americans over sixty-five live by themselves, most of them women.

In 2017, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, declared loneliness an “epidemic” among Americans of all ages. This warning was partly inspired by new medical research that has revealed the damage that social isolation and loneliness can inflict on a body. The two conditions are often linked, but they are not the same: isolation is an objective state (not having much contact with the world); loneliness is a subjective one (feeling that the contact you have is not enough). Both are thought to prompt a heightened inflammatory response, which can increase a person’s risk for a vast range of pathologies, including dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke. Older people are more susceptible to loneliness; forty-three per cent of Americans over sixty identify as lonely. Their individual suffering is often described by medical researchers as especially perilous, and their collective suffering is seen as an especially awful societal failing.

She writes about a novel attempt to address this problem and that is to give older people living alone robot pets (cats or dogs) that have many of the qualities of real animals. You can see videos of what these ‘pets’ look like

The texture of the fur is supposed to be realistic so that one gets the same tactile sensation petting or stroking them as you would with a live animal. What surprised me is that these pets only cost around $100. That may be because they seem to be immobile. The next generation will likely involve them being able to move around the house using sensors to guide them, somewhat like a Roomba or a self driving car. That feature would likely jack up the price quite a bit.

They have found that people can develop feelings for their robot pets and this has troubled some ethicists.

That loneliness can tempt a person into deeper alliance with robots has troubled many ethicists. Some charge that it is inherently indecent for us to offer, as an alternative to human company, the ersatz love and attention of a robot. Won’t an elderly person feel infantilized, even debased, by the offering? And would we be so quick to prescribe a robot for a lonely child?

Engaging a robot as a companion involves a steady disregard of that unfeeling. In a paper called “The March of the Robot Dogs,” the philosopher Robert Sparrow made another ethical critique—this one of consenting elderly users. “For an individual to benefit significantly from ownership of a robot pet they must systematically delude themselves regarding the real nature of their relation with the animal,” he wrote. “It requires sentimentality of a morally deplorable sort.” Such sentimentality violates an ethical imperative: “To apprehend the world accurately.”

Some years ago, I reviewed the highly enjoyable film Robot and Frank (2012) that featured the relationship that develops between an old man (played by Frank Langella), who is a retired jewel thief, and a a humanoid robot that his son, who is worried about his father’s deteriorating mental condition, presents him with to help him with chores around the house, provide companionship, take care of his needs, and keep an eye on him.

Here’s the trailer for the film.

That film was set in the future but it looks like that future is closer than I thought.


  1. flex says

    It seems odd to me that these ethicists know so little of human psychology that they don’t recognize that humans already create feelings of attachment to non-living objects. People know that cars, dolls, houses, baseball cards, knives, guns, coins, sculpture, computers, books, Egyptian mummies, etc. are not living, and yet they form attachments with these items, to the extent that damage to them creates sympathetic pain in the owner.

    Unless the attachment is so great as to cause behavioral issues with the rest of society (“my precious”) these attachments are not considered harmful, or morally reprehensible.

    As for ersatz pets, what is special about a living pet for the owner? Owning a dog is not a morally superior choice to not owning a dog. Owning a loved doll and caring for it can give someone pleasure, does the fact that it is unliving make it morally inferior to owning dog? If a doll looks like a dog, and feels like a dog, and if it reacts like a dog, and is loved as much as a dog is, how is it inferior to a dog? How does someone else tell the difference between a person loving a doll or loving a dog?

    Certainly giving someone a robot pet without telling them it is a robot would be a deliberate lie (presuming the pet is indistinguishable from the real thing), and not morally justified. But an owner could form emotional attachments to an ersatz pet, knowing it is not real, and still apprehend the world correctly. Such sentimentality is not morally reprehensible, in fact showing empathy toward even inanimate objects helps keep them functional and promotes sustainability. Keeping your car clean because you think the car is happier when it is clean also makes the car last longer. Liking the car you have, and thinking it likes you back, will encourage you to hold on to it longer.

    Of course, whenever I see a news article where ethicists are saying something bad could happen I get curious if the reporter sent the following questions to the ethicist: “What is ethically good about X?”; “What is ethically wrong about X?”. The ethicist then answers both the questions, sometimes reaching pretty far for an answer to one of the questions, and the reporter only publishes the controversial answer.

  2. kestrel says

    I think the idea that this is troubling, is kind of silly. There are people who feel that way about living animals -- that people should not have relationships with them because they are not human. (LOL. What’s so special about humans?) Joking aside, many people treat living animals as though they were humans -- they talk to them, think that the animal is reacting in a way that a human would and so on. It looks to me as though now that sort of a relationship is accepted, and the new kid on the block -- the robot pet -- is viewed the way living animals used to be, that they are not fit company for a human.

    I would say it’s not up to the ethicist, it’s up to the person who has the pet or the robot. If it makes them happy that is good enough for me.

  3. garnetstar says

    Is there a problem with real pets? Cats, maybe, who don’t require a lot of care. For those older people who are physically and mentally able to feed the cat and care for the litter box, or for those who have minimal help (a few minutes, every few days) to do so.

    You can get a petsitter for $12/day, to visit once for a few minutes and do those things. Then, you do have to buy food and litter, but it sounds cheaper overall than a robot. Real ones also adapt to you and treat you more personally.

  4. kestrel says

    @garnetstar, #4: A lot of apartments, facilities etc. don’t allow pets. It’s understandable: real live animals shed, pee and crap, claw or chew things etc. so I can see that a robot animal like this would work in those situations, where maybe a living animal is not allowed.

    I do agree with you that living animals are to be preferred.

  5. Silentbob says

    the philosopher Robert Sparrow made another ethical critique--this one of consenting elderly users. “For an individual to benefit significantly from ownership of a robot pet they must systematically delude themselves regarding the real nature of their relation with the animal,” he wrote. “It requires sentimentality of a morally deplorable sort.” Such sentimentality violates an ethical imperative: “To apprehend the world accurately.”

    So identical to a belief in God watching over them, except the imaginary intelligence at least has some physicality. Gotcha.

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