Philip K. Dick, Robotic Pets, and What is Love, Anyway?

I’m a cat fanatic. I share my life with an adorable Siamese. I love reading about cats, seeing pictures of cats, hearing friends talk about cats. I think you get the picture.

A couple weeks ago an article titled Will Robots Replace Cats? grabbed my attention via the Cat Channel. The article talked about how robotic pets are already making a splash in Japan, and posits that in the future, owning a live pet animal may be something only a privileged few can afford. Robotic cats and dogs may replace living, breathing animals.

Although the article didn’t make the connection, Philip K. Dick had this idea way back in 1968 when he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a fantastic SF novel which later inspired the film, Blade Runner.

In the novel Philip K. Dick describes a society where owing a live animal is the ultimate in status. People save up to make a downpayment on having, say, a real live chicken. For those who can’t afford a live animal, having a robotic pet is as critical to folks as having a smart phone is to us today. One character, a robotic pet vet tech, is called to save a dying robotic cat.

Pet death is gut wrenching. I’ve been through it recently. To me the biggest benefit of a robotic pet isn’t that it won’t poop or cost me money to feed, but that it never dies. But, no, says Philip K. Dick, and no says the Cat Chanel article. The expert interviewed for the article said:

“In Japan, people are becoming so attached to their robot dogs that they hold funerals for them when the circuits die.

The Cat Channel article asks, if humans can become this attached to a robotic pet, what does this mean about our attachment to our flesh and blood pets?

if robotic pets trigger feelings in humans of attachment, then does that mean the bond pet parents experience with their animals mean it doesn’t really exist? Perhaps that “bond” is really just humans projecting their emotions onto animals.

This question is not unique to the human-animal bond. Is the love we feel toward our human loved ones anything more than a projection of our own emotions? Isn’t love the emotion of care for the other, and hope that it’s reciprocated?  Can android humans (or android pets) feel empathy, feel care? If they can’t, does it matter to the people who love them?

If you’re interested in my review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? you can check it out, it’s short and sweet.

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