I have dementia. I respond to a robotic pet as though it were a real one. Am I being duped? Does it matter?


Where do you stand on the ethics of robotic pets versus real ones for people living with dementia? Are we playing with people’s dignity by letting them canoodle with a pet that was assembled on a conveyor belt, a pet they treat as real?

I’ve just come back from the Dementia Action Alliance’s excellent national conference where the subject led to a lively debate. I’ve got skin in the game in so far as my company, Mentia, creates virtual activities of daily life that people impacted by dementia can undertake by simply tapping on a screen. They experience a sense of agency that may no longer be possible in the actual world, and our studies show that these activities have a positive impact on wellbeing. So here is my take on the subject:

I define ‘technology’ as something beyond our bodies that we manipulate to create meaning. The hand-dipped in ochre and waved across the cave wall was one of the first technological ideas. Jumping a couple of millennia, a feather becomes a quill pen and now we can offload our thoughts onto paper. We then learn to manipulate the written word to construct ideas, both concrete and in the imagination, to develop more sophisticated constructions than we otherwise could if we limited our thinking to only that which existed in our heads. Jump forward a few centuries and we have the printing press; now we can distribute those ideas. Now consider the internet and the way that it enables information to flow. And AI, which my wise co-founder, Serge Soudoplatoff, explains as “expertise, everywhere”.

Let’s pull up here, and go back to robotic pets.

Why not think of robot pets as intelligence, embodied; a transactional smart object that gets us to where we want to go just like the other technologies I’ve just highlighted.

These synthetic critters are a way to amplify effect, knowledge, experience. It is not we who question the ethics of a non-biological pet that matters; it’s the person who is stroking that critter. Why rob others of the opportunity to make meaning from the objects around them? After all, every day, each one of us accepts tech-enabled substitutes for the real thing: a musical recording in place of attending a concert, a Skype call instead of a visit, an emoji kiss instead of a peck on the cheek, frequent flyer miles instead of coins in the hand, and so on.

In short, we live in a world where actual and virtual objects and experiences merge together. This may sound unpalatable to some, but when we create meaning from stuff, and they have a real impact on us, that experience is real. In the case of robotic animals, the impact can be visceral, embodied, emotional…real.

Accepting the interplay is to live in the modern world. You and I coexist with simulation in our everyday lives – why would we prevent people living with dementia to do the same, especially as they have been making meaning from simulations and substitutes throughout their lives? Why stop now?

That said, I’m putting in a request for robotic pets that have fur that doesn’t feel synthetic and the earthy smell of doggy fur and skin. Oh, and I want my regular walks in the park, fragrant flowers in my room, and regular visits from some friendly neighborhood pooches, too.