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Robodog cuddles and the future of our pets

Our love for our furry friends keeps growing. So will breakthroughs in keeping them happy ⁠— and improving their bonds with us.

By Glenn McDonald

The history of people and domesticated animals goes back tens of thousands of years, according to archaeological records. Dogs were almost certainly the first pets. At some point before recorded history, dogs scampered out of the work-animal category — hunting, guarding — and into the more comfortable life of companionship and scratches behind the ears. Other pets followed. Egyptians were famously into cats. The Chinese developed an entire porcelain industry for goldfish bowls. 

The history of pet ownership makes for surprisingly fun academic journal reading, but whither the future? Surveys estimate that Americans now have around 85 million cats, 78 million dogs, 15 million birds, 12 million small mammals, and 9 million reptiles. Given social trends, emerging technologies, and research trajectories, the experience of caring for our fuzzier friends is sure to take some turns. 

Pet Tech 

Prognostication is a tricky business, but one bedrock principle benefits every investigation: Follow the money. 

According to the American Pet Products Association, the U.S. market for pet supplies was $72 billion (with a b) in 2018. Food and medicine are the biggest categories, but the market’s fastest-growing segment is high-tech pet toys. That’s related to a trend among humans: millennials have now officially passed baby boomers as the largest pet-owning generation in the U.S. A 2018 online retail survey suggests that young pet owners looove to spend on pet gadgets (also called “petgets,” because marketing). Another interesting note from the survey: 42 percent of coupled-up millennial pet owners say that they would rather snuggle with their pets than their romantic partners. Seriously. 

42 percent of coupled-up millennial pet owners say that they would rather snuggle with their pets than their romantic partners.

Demand drives supply — and innovation. That results in pet accessories like LavvieBot, one of several robotic cat litter boxes on the market. The LavvieBot cleans and refills itself using a “patented rotating rake mechanism,” then beams wireless updates to a smartphone app named PurrSong. Again: marketing. For dogs, the $500 Inubox uses a system of hydraulics and chemical sifters to process waste, dispensing a vacuum-sealed, odor-proof bag. It also delivers your dog a treat after each successful transaction. Progress: there’s no stopping it. 

Inubox uses a system of hydraulics and chemical sifters to process waste, dispensing a vacuum-sealed, odor-proof bag. Photo by Inubox

The Playdate Smart Ball, designed by a former engineer at AT&T Labs, is a spherical robotic rover that you can remote-control from work, via smartphone, when your pets are bored at home. The built-in camera and two-way audio provide a kind of slobber-proof FaceTime experience. The similarly themed iFetch is an automated ball launcher for dogs and their lazy humans. You’ve also got your pet monitors, your GPS trackers, your camera collars, your DNA test kits, and your Korean cat treadmills. In short, we can expect to see tremendous progress in techie pet gadgets for the most foolproof reason in all of capitalism: People are buying. 

Robot Pets 

In the 21st century, pets don’t have to be living creatures. Robot pets have been a reliable trope in science fiction for decades, and thanks to Japan’s more playful approach to consumer electronics, the future is now. Last year, Sony resurrected its Aibo line of robot dogs, one of the strangest tech trends of the 1990s and early 2000s.  

After ending production of the previous Aibo robot dog in 2006, Sony revived the product in 2018. Photo by The Yomiuri Shimbun via Associated Press

The new Aibo – recently made available for shipping to the U.S. – is the Jetsons-style robodog we’ve been waiting for. The lapdog-sized robot’s movements, powered by 22 separate devices, are surprisingly graceful and lifelike. The new Aibo also features advances in speech recognition and autonomous navigation: It listens to you like an Echo and maps its environment like a Roomba. According to Sony, the robot’s advanced AI learns and evolves, adapting to its owner and abode. Also: it has built-in cameras, LED displays for eyes, and replaceable paw pads. The price tag is spooky —  $2,900 — but that’s sure to come down with future models. 

For a deeper glimpse into the future, we want to peek in on advanced robotic labs. Boston Dynamics, a spinoff of MIT, has been providing eye-popping viral videos of its inventions for years — the humanoid Atlas, the factory bot Handle. The lab’s 65-pound biomimetic dog robot — named Spot, naturally — is designed to navigate on its own through home or office environments, running 90 minutes at a time and recharging itself when needed.

Boston Dynamics’ Spot is a small four-legged robot with the ability to pick up and handle objects using its 5 degree-of-freedom arm and perception sensors. Photo by Laura Chiesa/Pacific Press/Sipa USA

For a more unsettling variation on the theme, check out Boston Dynamics’ BigDog, a gas-and-hydraulic dogbot the size of a small mule. Initially developed as a military project with DARPA, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a division of the Department of Defense dedicated to emerging technologies. BigDog can navigate slopes and rough terrain while carrying 300-pound payloads. Good dog! [Nervous laugh.

Genetic Engineering 

With selective breeding, humans have practiced a kind of genetic engineering on their pets for millennia — giving us animals bred for specific behaviors and appearances. That process has accelerated wildly in the last 200 years, and it’s about to get even weirder. 

Using lab-based genetic-engineering techniques, scientists can now select very specific traits in animals without having to wait for generations of animals to mature and reproduce. This is like hitting the fast-forward button on traditional breeding, and it’s already creeping into the commercial pet market. Those glow-in-the-dark tropical fish at the pet store? That’s the result of flipping switches in the genetic code. 

Thanks to inexpensive gene-editing techniques, it’s entirely possible for individual dog breeders — or pig farmers or cattle ranchers — to genetically alter their animals in DIY backyard labs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released regulatory statements and quick-fix rulings to stay current with fast-moving genetics technology. So lab-based gene editing could result in so-called “designer pets,” or animals ordered up with a checklist of specific genetic traits. Or, government regulation could more or less shut down everything, leaving us with traditional selective breeding. 

However, purebred animals are very likely to fade away in the next couple of decades, says psychologist Alexandra Horowitz, author of the 2016 book “Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell.” 

“I don’t think purebred dog breeding is sustainable, given the rates of inherited diseases,” Horowitz says. “If that’s the case, more outbreeding, or crossing breeds, will be popular.” 

Animal Psychology 

Thanks to the inevitable march of science, in the future we will almost certainly know more about our little buddies’ psychology than we do now. 

Horowitz runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University, one of a dozen or so university research centers in the U.S. that explore how animals think and feel. Horowitz has been studying dog behavior pretty much exclusively for more than 25 years. She and her colleagues have made amazing progress toward understanding how dogs see the world. Or, more to the point, how they smell the world. 

Horowitz’s research has put some hard numbers to the observation that dogs process their environment mostly through smell. They sniff up to 10 times per second and have 300 million olfactory receptors. That’s 50 times more than humans, and we only sniff once every two seconds or so. A recent Horowitz study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, determined that dogs feel happier, friendlier, and safer when they’re allowed to fully sniff out their environment and follow their noses on walks. This foraging behavior is how dogs “see” what’s around them. When you drag a dog along and don’t let it sniff around, the dog feels unsafe and insecure — like it’s being marched through a dark room. 

In time, Horowitz says, “I think we will have a lot more information about the sensory abilities of dogs than we do now, especially as regards how they differ from us. There is also a lot of fascinating research characterizing differences between individual dogs, or between breeds or types of mixed breeds.” Follow that trajectory forward, and the future looks happier for pets and people alike. Our bonds of empathy can only improve as we come to better understand each other.

If YouTube is any indication, there is also a substantial citizen-scientist initiative out there dedicated to direct human-pet linguistic interaction. Consider the case of K’eyush the Stunt Dog and imagine a million pet owners and a million pets working in this direction. We may be on the cusp of something big.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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