Virtual pets 'the norm in future'
Robot dogs are likely to be replacing man's best friend in homes around the world in as little as a decade, an expert has claimed.
Animal welfare researcher Dr Jean-Loup Rault believes "real" pets will soon become a luxury in an overpopulated world.
And he expects people to form genuine emotional attachments to their virtual and mechanical animal companions.
"It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation," said Dr Rault, from the University of Melbourne in Australia.
" It's not a question of centuries from now. If 10 billion human beings live on the planet in 2050 as predicted, it's likely to occur sooner than we think. If you'd described Facebook to someone 20 years ago, they'd think you were crazy. But we are already seeing people form strong emotional bonds with robot dogs in Japan.
"Pet robotics has come a long way from the Tamagotchi craze of the mid-90s. In Japan, people are becoming so attached to their robot dogs that they hold funerals for them when the circuits die."
Writing in the journal Frontiers of Veterinary Science, Dr Rault argues that robotic pets raise important ethical questions relating to animal welfare.
While accepting that they might benefit people who are allergic to pets, short on space, in hospital or frightened of real animals, he said: " Robots can, without a doubt, trigger human emotions. If artificial pets can produce the same benefits we get from live pets, does that mean that our emotional bond with animals is really just an image that we project on to our pets?
"Of course we care about live animals, but if we become used to a robotic companion that doesn't need food, water or exercise, perhaps it will change how humans care about other living beings."
It was not too far-fetched to imagine artificially intelligent robots pets in the future that can learn, think and respond on their own, Dr Rault maintained.
"When engineers work on robotic dogs, they work on social intelligence, they address what people need from their dogs: companionship, love, obedience, dependence," he said. "They want to know everything about animal behaviour so they can replicate it as close as possible to a real pet."
Robot cats are a little trickier "because you have to make them unpredictable", he added.
Examples of currently available robot pets included the Sony Aibo dog, which children treat as if it was a living animal, said Dr Rault. Research has shown that people tended to give Aibo a status of its own, somewhere between an animal and an object.
Paro, a robotic baby seal, is being used therapeutically in the US, and computer-generated "worlds" featuring virtual animals are already attracting a big following - HappyFarm has up to 23 million users a day.