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Cat-robots not yet purrfect

Psychologists Elena and Alex Libin, of Washington, D.C., use robotic cats like Cleo and Max in therapy. 
 (Washington Post / The Spokesman-Review)
Psychologists Elena and Alex Libin, of Washington, D.C., use robotic cats like Cleo and Max in therapy. (Washington Post / The Spokesman-Review)
Linton Weeks The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – There is something just so tomorrow about the Russian robo-therapists with their mechanical cats.

Alexander Libin softly strokes the orange-cream fur of NeCoRo – a semi-realistic cat-robot packed with visual, auditory and movement-sensitive sensors and weighing 3.5 pounds – while his wife, Elena, serves tea and cookies.

“She’s like a real pet,” Alex says. He’s petting a tabby nicknamed Cleo and, by gosh, it does look like a cat, or some come-alive stuffed animal from a high-end horror movie. It is much more lifelike than Sony’s Erector-Set-like robo-dog, Aibo.

Cleo lounges on the dining table, stretches its paws, arches its back, twitches its tail, opens and shuts its eyes. When it turns its neck you can hear a creepy mechanical whirring sound.

Self-described robo-therapists and affiliated faculty members at Georgetown University, the Libins believe in the restorative value of animal companions. The catbot, they explain, is easier for many people – the elderly, the allergy-stricken, the autistic and disabled children and adults – to deal with than a real cat. Developed by Omron Corp. of Japan, the mecho-pets are not yet available in the United States, Libin says.

They don’t have to be fed or cleaned up after. Other variations – a teddy bear and a baby seal – are in development at other labs, and some people believe robotic pets will be omnipresent in the near future.

Cleo meows obnoxiously and occasionally hisses unless you touch it a certain way, tripping special sensors, and then it closes its eyes, relaxes and purrs or mews contentedly. “She just got back from a conference where she met 50 people,” Elena says.

“That makes Cleo a little nervous,” Alex says.

The whole scene makes you a little nervous. As you delve into the future of pets on this planet, you discover at least three possibilities: robotic, cloned and biologically reprogrammed. It’s a foggy, uncharted world of cuddly robots, copycat puppies, nonallergenic cats, glowing fish, gargantuan guinea pigs, miniature hippos and the re-establishment of endangered or extinct species that could put us all in danger.

Because pets are not human but are endowed with personality, intelligence and emotion, they’re the perfect foils – in-between beings – for our scientific curiosity. Think about it. Of course scientists are going to tamper with their genetic structures! You bet they’ll tinker with their bloodlines! Breeders have been doing that for years. But now pet researchers can implant software, readjust the genome and conduct experiments in interspecies embryo transfer in ways that have never been done before.

“I’m not scared of the robots,” says Alex as he pets Cleo. “I’m scared of the people.”

Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and author of “The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit,” believes there is a huge future for robotic pets. Like the Libins, she has been studying the effects of robotic pets on people. She’s convinced that people are responding to the new generation of robo-pets because people are basically lonely and vulnerableOf course, this puts us back into willing servitude.

Irony alert: As we build more-needy machines that act more like animals, we are also developing less-needy animals that act more like machines.

With pets, as with just about everything else, there is never just one future. There are many — varied and diverse. The futures of pets are less certain than our own. We will grow old, our memories will melt away, we will continue our quest for novelty, and community and love. Ultimately, the kind of pet we will choose in our own future says as much about us as it does about our options. Are we comfortable with machines or do we like the woodsy smell of a hunting dog’s coat? Would we rather speak to our Internet-informed parrot or dangle yarn between a kitten’s little paws?

“Robotic pets in some ways have advantages,” says the Human Society’s Martha Armstrong. But there’s true joy “in seeing a person respond to a kitten or cat that purrs, sits in their lap, or a dog that licks its face. It’s that heartbeat. It’s that living thing. I hardly think a robotic pet makes somebody feel needed.”

Or possibly robotic pets will create a whole new variety of relationships.

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