There are few things more enjoyable than coming home after a long day of work and being greeted by your furry friend. Your dog might tackle you with affection while your cat may ignore you until you assure her she’s the queen of the house. Either way, living with a pet makes life a lot less lonely. But what if there were a way to have that same companionship without the hassle of feeding and cleaning up after your animal bff? What if there were something that could imitate everything you love about your feline without dealing with the whole, it’s a live animal thing?
Too futuristic? Not really.
The Japanese company, Yukai Engineering, is bringing the world this exact idea with a product called Quoobo. Quoobo is a robotic cat. It’s almost identical to a real cat except it doesn’t have claws…or a head or legs. Set to be released in June of 2018, Quoobo is here to be the purr-fect cat substitute.
Why is a headless robot cat entering the universe, you may ask. The company claims this could be the ideal way for people to have the presence of a calming animal when they live in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Quoobo reacts as if it were real, wagging its tail as you stroke it. Yukai Engineering goes so far as to say that this cat could even be an animal therapy substitute to help people manage anxiety and depression.
There might be some scientific support for this idea. Studies have found that, for the elderly, the presence of animals help alleviate mental health and cognitive problems, like depression, dementia, and schizophrenia. Other research shows that having an animal in the home increases the release of oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone, and reduces feelings of isolation. A robot like Quoobo could theoretically provide all of those benefits with minimal responsibility. Unlike a live cat, caring for Quoobo is really just charging its batteries instead of cleaning a litter box.
But Quoobo might not be all good.
A significant percentage of Japan’s population is made up of people aged 65 or older. One of Quoobo’s benefits is the companionship it could offer to the elderly. But Sherry Turkle, a professor whose research focuses on human interactions with technology, thinks this might not be a good thing. Turkle warned us way back in 2013 the potential dangers of relying on robots for companionship. Paro, a robotic seal that was also manufactured in Japan, was shown to successfully comfort elderly patients. Patients connected with this robot as they would with a human, which is really important.
The thing that Turkle fears, however, was the fact that this wasn’t a human connection. Patients were relating to Paro the robot like they would a human, even talking to it about their feelings. And this is a good thing for elderly people in need of companionship. But Turkle worries what this means for the future of our society if we start sending robots to spend time with elderly relatives in nursing homes rather than going to see them ourselves. She worries what a new dependence on robots could mean for our relationships with each other. Most of all, she worries what will happen once we start talking to robots, and stop listening to each other.
The studies with Paro showed that Quoobo’s effects could be a really positive in terms of providing companionship for the elderly. However, what Japan, and the rest of the world, should be wary of is relying too much on Quoobo and not enough on real, person-to-person care.
Of course, Quoobo isn’t out in the world yet, and I’m getting ahead of myself by implying that we’re headed for future where we send robot cats to take care of Grandma and Grandpa. And, to Yukai Engineering’s credit, they’re not advertising Quoobo as a therapy cat. They’re only saying that there could be therapeutic benefits, especially for people who don’t have the opportunity to have their own feline friend.
For now, I’ll stick with my live cats. But come June 2018, Quoobo might give them a run for their money.