This week saw Xiaomi unveil its Cyberdog, lovingly described as an ‘open source quadruped robot companion’. Shown from the right angle, there is something very canine about the machine but in a menacing guard dog rather than man’s best friend kind of way.
There’s no doubt that the Cyberdog is a clever piece of engineering. Complete with an Nvidia Jetson Xavier NX processor and deep learning acceleration, it is able to perform a range of high speed movements, including backflips. Its sensors allow it to see, touch and hear, avoiding obstacles and obeying commands. In many ways, it’s perfect, but it’s not a pet.
The Cyberdog is not the first of its kind. We’ve seen everything from Sony’s Aibo to Boston Dynamics’ Spot. While these are all capable and even – in Aibo’s case – pretty cute – they will never replace our pets. As a dog owner myself, I’m slightly biased, but here’s why…
1. Not doing what they’re told is part of the charm
Robot dogs are designed to obey your every command: sit, walk, stay, all without question. Real dogs however take training to do this and sometimes they just don’t listen. Unless you have the most obedient dog in the world, there will be times when they don’t bring back that stick or stay by your side rather than chasing another squirrel up a tree.
It’s frustrating at the time but it makes the times they do listen all the more rewarding. Now if the robot dogs are anything like my Alexa devices, they might not listen all the time either, but it will be a failure of the software to recognize what you’re saying. Not just because they don’t feel like it.
2. Robots can’t love
If you want to experience pure unadulterated love, adopt a dog and take a long hard look into its beautiful little eyes. That animal loves you, no matter what and you love it back. I love my phone and my guitar too, but like the robot dog, they don’t reciprocate.
A robot dog doesn’t care how you’re feeling and won’t be ready to comfort you when you’re sad, unless you specifically tell it to. And when you look into its eyes, there’s nothing there but ones and zeros.
3. Pets need us, robots are too convenient
Part of owning a pet is a sense of responsibility. Going on holiday or away on business can be a hassle unless you have someone to look after them, especially if you have dogs. Even if you’re gone for a few hours, it feels like days to your dog – cat’s often couldn’t care less. They need to be fed, walked, bathed, taken to the vets… they depend on us for everything, much like a baby.
With a robot dog, you simply switch it off when you don’t need it, or let it go into standby mode. It won’t care if you’re gone for an hour or a month and when you get home and power it up again, you’ll be lucky to get a wag of a tail in recognition.
4. Petting a robot doesn’t feel good
One of the many reasons for having a pet is its benefit to your mental health. Not only does the need to walk a dog get you up and out of the house for some exercise and give you reasons to interact with other pet owners, but it can also reduce your stress levels. Caring for an animal is known lower your blood pressure and help ease anxiety. Even the physical act of stroking a dog (or cat) can having a calming effect on both you and the animal.
Running your hand along the cold hard metal of the robot dog won’t have the same effect. The lack of emotional response means you won’t get any of the health benefits from the robot animal. You might as well confide in your microwave.
5. There’s no danger of pets taking over the world
As I mentioned at the start, there’s something particularly menacing about the Xiaomi Cyberdog. I’m sure it would be a great replacement for patrolling a building yard at night and chasing down intruders, but I worry it could almost be too clever.
These are the kind of robots that some movie villain will attach lasers to the head of, or use to perform a slowly agonizing death of the hero. But with all that technology on board, what if it does go rogue? It might not be the T-1000 Terminator but imagine what a pack of these could do. Okay, maybe not much but it’s slightly more than my 14-year-old dachshund could muster.