Could motor manufacturer’s big robotic plot spell the end for us keeping companion animals?

vivadmin/ December 17, 2015/ News

An international motor manufacturing giant is harbouring big ambitions to become a significant player in the growing market for robots that help the elderly and other people get around in everyday life. But could this development spell the beginning of the end of humans keeping animals as pets, or is this just another example of us all becoming too reliant on technology?

According to an article recently published by YahooNews, the Toyota Motor Company believes it can use its manufacturing expertise to become as crucial in a field it calls “partner robots” as it is to auto-making. Robotics engineers at Toyota currently number only 150 out of a worldwide staff of 300,000 but it is plowing money into research and development.

In this Dec. 2, 2015 photo, Akifumi Tamaoki, general manager of Toyota Motor Corp.’s partner robot division, speaks beside with Toyota partner robot HSR, or Human Support Robot, during an interview at the International Robot exhibition in Tokyo. HSR can pick up after people, bring an item to the bedside or open curtains. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Akifumi Tamaoki

Toyota last month announced a $1 billion investment in a research company headed by robotics expert Gill Pratt in Silicon Valley to develop artificial intelligence and robotics. It is already working with Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on robotics. “We are preparing for a future in which people may not be able to drive cars, or they may need artificial intelligence to support them to drive, and once they get off their cars they may need help from partner robots,” said Akifumi Tamaoki, general manager of Toyota’s partner robot division.

The Japanese government is banking on robotics as a growth industry in a society that’s aging at a faster pace than any other industrialized nation. Other companies have jumped in, including Internet company SoftBank Corporation, which is selling a humanoid that carries on simple conversations. Speaking to The Associated Press at a Tokyo robot show this week, Tamaoki said Toyota’s robotics interests go back decades, including their use in manufacturing at its auto plants. But it now sees the technology as a viable business in its own right.

Honda officials have acknowledged that the company went through soul-searching after getting targeted with public criticism when Asimo could do nothing to help people after the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan. Toyota demonstrated a one-armed partner robot on-wheels loaded with sensors and cameras, earlier this year. The R2-D2 lookalike known as HSR, or Human Support Robot, can pick up after people, bring an item to the bedside or open curtains.

The robot, an improved version of a model first shown in 2012, is not yet for commercial sale. Toyota is collaborating with 10 universities in Japan, with plans to extend that to overseas academic organisations next year, to develop practical uses, Tamaoki said.

Among the developments in the works for HSR is another arm, which will allow it to perform more complex tasks, and adding conversational skills. It now comes with a flat panel that works like a videophone or video player, but can’t talk. One research group has proposed using it for taking care of pets, such as jiggling a toy for a lonely cat, according to Toyota.

Whether or not you agree with replacing more conventional pets with robots, there is an argument here for replacing ourselves with them. As our lives become busier and busier, the time spent with our pets becomes less and less. Faced with this dilemma, it could be argued that a robot to keep our pets occupied could in fact be a very welcome addition to any pet owning family.

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