Watch a Slate V video comparing all the robo-pets in action.
I'm 32 years old, I'm not married, and my dogological clock is ticking. For almost a decade now, I've been an armchair pet owner, studying breed lists and taking Web quizzes on what kind of puppy to adopt. Then, during a recent bout of anxiety over my impending menopaws, I volunteered to dog-sit for a friend.
It turns out that a real, live dog is nearly as demanding as a human baby—except a dog never learns to pour its own bowl of cereal. According to my dog-sitting instructions, I was to provide the animal with two meals every day plus three promenades around the block. (Happily, I was spared the unenviable task of brushing her teeth.) Forget drinks after work. Forget that film screening. Forget dinners out. Heck, forget even going into the office.
And so I became aware of my membership in a sad demographic that includes shiftless magazine editors, small children, and senior citizens. We're the sorry lot that adores animals but is too lazy, uncoordinated, or infirm to take care of them.
Fortunately, the modern world has produced something just for us—the robot pet. In theory, an animal constructed of fake fur, plastic limbs, and servos is the perfect substitute for a demanding, flesh-and-blood companion. But how engaging are these mechanical beasts? I took a stroll down Animoid Row to find out.
In the course of my research, I surveyed a wide spectrum of robot friends—deluxe, automated dinosaurs, joke-telling dogs, and even an original, late-1990s model Furby. To see how they performed in the wild, I conducted and videotaped a series of focus groups with those I deemed most likely to appreciate them: namely, a pair of small children, a kindly grandmother, a live dog, and a guy who was really, really stoned. (No video footage was compiled during the stoner session, so as to avoid harshing effects.)
As much as I enjoyed the exercise, it soon became clear that at every price point, a robot pet can be described by its signature combination of essential robot qualities: It's annoying, disturbing, offensive, pathetic, or scary—or some mixture thereof. In the end, though, one fake animal whirred and purred his way into my heart.
I present my findings below, in order of price, not value:
Original Furby, Tiger Electronics
A decade after it first appeared on the market, the original Furby remains the single-most annoying robot you can find. Thankfully, its antique chassis doesn't allow for autonomous movement—and thus it can be stowed permanently in the corner, facing the wall, with a towel draped over its head. Even so, any sudden movements, sounds, or flashing lights in the vicinity of the Furby may set off a cacophony of ejaculations in a grating and infantile pseudo-language called "furbish." To my surprise, though, the Furby performed admirably in the small-children test. (For a more detailed look at how kids interact—or don't interact—with the Furby, see this implanted-camera study conducted by multimedia artist Natalie Jerimejenko in 2000.)
Recommended for children so young that their faculty of annoyance is not fully developed ($15.50 on eBay; ages 6 and up).
Alive White Tiger Cub, WowWee
The Alive cub toys—available in white tiger, lion, panda, and polar bear models—are to be commended for their cheapness and elegance. The White Tiger is almost exactly what I'm looking for: a cuddly house cat that blinks and meows when you stroke its head but won't get hungry or pee on the sofa. If it weren't for the hum and whir of the animatronic motors, you might even forget, for a moment, that it's not really alive. (On that point, the cub is not alone: I'm now convinced that the invention of a silent motor would be the most dramatic breakthrough in the history of robotics; next to that, artificial intelligence is a trifle.) Another strike against: The cub can move only its mouth and eyes, so it spends most of its time awkwardly keeled over like a stuffed animal with not enough stuffing.