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Robot Dog vs. Real Dog

Can a realistic robot dog be a better pet for certain people?

It barks, it plays, it does tricks, and it begs for attention. In many ways, Aibo is just like any other dog. But there’s one major difference: Aibo is an interactive robot pet created by Sony.

But how much is owning an Aibo like owning a real dog? Gail Melson, a professor of psychology at Purdue University in Indiana, studied how kids ages 9 to 15 reacted to Aibo.

It barks. It plays. It does tricks and begs for attention. In many ways, Aibo is just like any other dog. But there's one major difference: Aibo is a robot. Sony created it to be an interactive pet.

But how much is owning an Aibo like owning a real dog? Gail Melson is a professor of psychology at Purdue University in Indiana. She studied how kids ages 9 to 15 reacted to Aibo.

“We found that children treated Aibo not so much as a machine but as an interactive partner,” she says. Although the kids knew they were playing with a robot, they felt a connection to the dog look-alike. They also felt a responsibility to Aibo, saying it wouldn’t be right to get rid of the machine if you got bored of it.

“A lot of people get a pet dog or cat, but what they really want is a toy,” says Jessica Pierce, an animal ethicist. “Animals are not toys.” One of the benefits of Aibo is that it is a toy. Unlike a real pet, it doesn’t make a mess or need food and water. It can even be left alone for hours or days in a row. For some busy families, getting an Aibo instead of a real dog might be the more humane choice.

"We found that children treated Aibo not so much as a machine but as an interactive partner," she says. The kids in the study knew they were playing with a robot. But they still felt a connection to the imitation dog. They also felt a responsibility to Aibo. They said it wouldn't be right to get rid of the machine if you got bored of it.

Jessica Pierce studies the ethics of keeping animals. "A lot of people get a pet dog or cat, but what they really want is a toy," she says. "Animals are not toys." One of the benefits of Aibo is that it is a toy. Unlike a real pet, it doesn't make a mess or need food and water. It can even be left alone for hours or days in a row. For some busy families, getting an Aibo instead of a real dog might be the kinder choice.

It may also be the more economical one. “We assumed that once the novelty wore off, kids would rather have a real dog,” Melson says. “but many kids made a financial argument.” Some kids she interviewed said they preferred Aibo despite its nearly $3,000 price tag. They thought Aibo wouldn’t need to be fed or go to the veterinarian—costs that add up over time.

A good home for a dog includes socialization, emotional support, physical activity, and the ability to pay for its food and medical care. If you can provide all of that, then there are plenty of pets in shelters looking for homes, Pierce stresses. “It’d be too bad if somebody who could give a real, unhomed dog a home got an Aibo instead,” she says.

It may also make more financial sense. "We assumed that once the novelty wore off, kids would rather have a real dog," Melson says. "But many kids made a financial argument." Some kids from low-income households preferred Aibo even though it costs almost $3,000. They pointed  out that Aibo wouldn't need to be fed or go to the veterinarian. They thought that would make Aibo less expensive in the long run.

But that doesn’t mean Aibo is always the better choice, says Pierce. Real dogs need company, exercise, food, and medical care. If you can provide all of that, then adopting a pet from a shelter is a good idea, says Pierce. "It would be too bad if somebody who could give a real, unhomed dog a home got an Aibo instead," she says.

Use the graph below to examine the cumulative costs of owning an Aibo. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use the graph below to examine the cumulative costs of owning an Aibo. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

What is the approximate cumulative cost of an Aibo after 6 years?

What is the approximate cumulative cost of an Aibo after 6 years?

A. An Aibo costs $2,899.99. This includes a toy ball, a charging station, and several years of AI cloud service, which helps it learn. For how long is that service free? How do you know?

A. An Aibo costs $2,899.99. This includes a toy ball, a charging station, and several years of AI cloud service, which helps it learn. For how long is that service free? How do you know?

B. The graph only shows the cumulative cost of the AI cloud service. What’s that fee per year after the free period?

B. The graph only shows the cumulative cost of the AI cloud service. What’s that fee per year after the free period?

The fee to adopt a dog from one shelter is $250. You will spend $1,000 in the first year for training, leashes, food bowls, and more. Food and medical care cost about $750 per year. Plot the first 5 years of cumulative costs for owning a real dog on the line graph.

The fee to adopt a dog from one shelter is $250. You will spend $1,000 in the first year for training, leashes, food bowls, and more. Food and medical care cost about $750 per year. Plot the first 5 years of cumulative costs for owning a real dog on the line graph.

When will a real dog cost more than an Aibo?

When will a real dog cost more than an Aibo?

Which type of pet do you think is the better financial investment? Explain your reasoning on a separate sheet of paper.

Which type of pet do you think is the better financial investment? Explain your reasoning on a separate sheet of paper.

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