Robots at the Zoo

A robo-dog (Sparky rather than Spot) checked out the animals at the Sydney Zoo. The video’s titles talk about how the robot is “interacting” with animals, but that seems like a more positive word than we would normally use to describe the hissing and spitting of the cheetahs meeting up with a robot for the first time.

So we wondered, how do robots get along with animals? We discovered that this is not a new question, and it’s not hard to answer.

Robot decoys have been around for years, both allowing observation of animals who get skittish around humans and helping “understaffed, underfunded and poorly equipped enforcement agencies” curtail poaching. Robotic sensors also gather information for zookeepers and zoologists, helping to care for animals without stressing them.

Robofish infiltrate schools of guppies and share their secrets with scientists. The fish seem to accept the robofish unquestioningly, which makes sense given the level of questioning usually displayed by fish. Robobirds are employed to scare off real birds, which can be serious pests in many situations.

Dogs will respond to commands from humanoid robots with some social programming, even though they don’t sit when Alexa or an equivalent tells them to. They don’t react to robodogs as though they were real dogs, but seem to be willing to give humanoid robots the benefit of the doubt. Dogs faced with robodogs react more like the cheetahs in the film Again, we’re not sure you can call that an interaction.

Why do we care?

To some extent, we’re interested in whatever people learn about robots. Out of the box thinking is good for automation and can lead to new ways of doing practical things.

However, there are practical applications for robot-animal interaction. Robot decoys and scarecrows have obvious practical value. Milking machines for cows and herding machines for sheep come in very handy.

There are also efforts to create automated pet sitters, much as robotic solutions have been explored for childcare and eldercare. MIT is working on an automated laser game to provide exercise for dogs and cats, for example.

True, automatically exercising dogs removes one of the greatest benefits dogs offer humans — motivation to get out and go for a health-giving walk. We can see the convenience value, though.

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