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The Dog of the Future is a Robot

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Dogs have been man’s best friend for tens of thousands of years. But our relationship with our furry companions may soon change in a very big way. According to a research paper from the University of Melbourne, the dogs of the future aren’t dogs at all. They’re robots. 

"It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation," writes animal welfare researcher Dr. Jean-Loup Rault. He wants to know how technology could impact our relationships with pets in the future. While we’d like to think a digital animal could never replace the love we have for Fido, technology has undeniably already changed how we interact with and relate to other humans (hello, emojis!). Rault argues it could easily do the same for our relationships with animals. 

The question, he says, isn’t if real dogs will be replaced, it’s when and by what?

The problem is that our pet population is not sustainable. “It is difficult to imagine how more than half of the 9.6 billion people of 2050 could still keep pets,” Rault writes. As the human population grows and our living spaces become smaller, it will be more difficult and expensive to take care of a real pet. Live dogs will become a luxury item for the rich, but the members of tomorrow’s 99 percent will still crave companionship and all the other benefits that come with dog ownership. This is where technology comes in. “We are already seeing people form strong emotional bonds with robot dogs in Japan,” Rault says. “People are becoming so attached to their robot dogs that they hold funerals for them when the circuits die." 

Some of the most popular robotic pups are the Aibos toy dogs, which Sony made from 1999 to 2006, selling roughly 150,000 units. The dogs were marketed as “Man’s Best Friend for the 21st Century.” They play fetch, respond to human touch, convey emotion, and take voice commands from owners. When Sony ended mechanical support for the toys last year, longtime Aibo owners were distraught at the thought of losing their companions and began shelling out cash to technicians who could fix their aging robotic pups. “I can’t imagine how quiet our living room would have been if Ai-chan wasn’t here,” one Aibo owner told the Wall Street Journal. “It will be sad when the day finally comes when Ai-chan is unable to stand up.” Sounds like they’re talking about a real, living dog, right? 

“Artificially intelligent machines ...  are slowly being introduced into our everyday lives,” notes Andy Boxall at Digital Trends. “Mourning their ‘passing’ is only logical, which means the Aibo funeral may be the shape of things to come.”  

Recently, robotics company Boston Dynamics (which Google acquired in 2013) created a four-legged machine called “Spot” with uncanny balancing skills. A video of someone kicking the bot to demonstrate its agility made people really uncomfortable. “Kicking a dog, even a robot dog, just seems so wrong,” wrote Benny Evangelista at the SFGate blog.

Indeed, “overall, robotic pets appear to elicit similar responses from humans as live pets,” Rault says. "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?" It’s an odd ethical question that we’ll have to tackle in the coming decades. While robotic pet companions could have benefits for those with allergies or space limitations, Rault worries about the impact they might have on how we view real animals. Would we lose touch of how to care for living creatures? 

“We are possibly witnessing the dawn of a new era,” Rault says, “the digital revolution with likely effects on pet ownership, similar to the industrial revolution which replaced animal power for petrol and electrical engines.”

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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