• Dr. Timothy Smith

Would You Let a Robot Raise Your Dog or Child?


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Bringing a new puppy into the home or, far more significantly, a new baby radically transforms daily life with the joys of having the new being in one’s life, responsibilities for their care, and upending regular routines. A new puppy brings mirth and joy as it plays, explores its new world, and bonds with people and animals around it. Puppies also need special attention with frequent trips outdoors in the imperfect process of housebreaking and the activity of socialization, including dealing with the the nips, bites, and scratches. A new baby needs frequent feeding, care, and love, which invariably changes sleep schedules, routines, and transforms your attention and perspective.

Automation serves many purposes from increasing the speed of performing tasks, transferring dangerous or repetitive work from people to machines, and even assuming responsibility for certain decisions. From automated drones to self-driving cars, people continue to relinquish more consequential activities and responsibilities to machines.

Recently, a San Francisco based startup company named Companion Labs announced the imminent release (2020) of their new robotic dog trainer called Companion Pro. (joincompanion.com) Companion Pro uses multiple sensors and artificial intelligence to recognize, interact, and train your dog. The device can identify your dog by sight with facial recognition software and even issue voice commands using your voice. The Companion Pro accurately launches a treat for good behavior such as sit, stay, and quiet. The robot does not move around. Instead, it looks like a white box with an aperture for the treat gun. It can choose to capture good behavior by rewarding the dog when it is quiet or luring behavior by issuing a command and then providing a treat for proper execution. The product was developed in collaboration with dog behaviorists. The Companion Pro implements the consistency of robotics to work with your dog like a trainer around the clock. It will also keep your company when no one is home, which can help reduce separation anxiety. According to CEO John Honchariw on a Cnet video, the price for home use will come in at around $200 per month. (cnet.com)

However, such robotic and behavioral technology naturally has applications beyond animal behavior and extends to human children. New AI tools designed to help children learn continue to emerge in the US. One product called Thinkster Math works with kindergarten through eighth-grade students to learn math online with a computer, smartphone, or tablet. According to its website, Thinkster works with students individually to understand math problems. It helps them when they get stuck by employing different teaching styles tailored by artificial intelligence to the student. Such a product provides immediate help to students that cannot be possible in a traditional teaching environment.

As we continue to outsource more of our labor, including caretaking and teaching, to artificial intelligence, it makes sense that we would imagine how far artificial intelligence would eventually reach. Jess Young for The London Economic spins a decidedly more dystopian vision in a recent article titled, “Advances in artificial intelligence will lead to the outsourcing of parenting within 30 years.” In her piece, she relates the view that automation will spread to the parenting of children by robots in human-free zones. In the article, Ms. Young details the work of Dr. Michelle Tempest. Tempest is an author and teacher of ethics and law at Cambridge University. She states, “Technology will be so smart that parents will be able to outsource childrearing 24/7, 365 days a year, to purpose-built ‘Upbringing Centres’ that look after their children’s every need. [and] Mums and dads will, in effect, have the option of becoming ‘holiday parents,’ who need only to spend time with their children on day trips and family vacations…” (thelondoneconomic.com) She goes on to speculate that people will adopt such conveniences naturally and with little resistance. While Tempest’s ideas lie in the realm of speculation, it is natural to think about how child care and child rearing will evolve as technology evolves with us.

The promise of a training assistant for dogs at home and in shelters sounds like a possible game-changer for families who will have to leave home more as the pandemic winds down. Companion Pro may help people who lack the time and skills to train their dogs and provide a better life for both dog and owner. Offloading responsibilities for decisions and actions from people to machines has consequences. The potential of automating parenting and teaching may seem like an outrageous, dystopian vision. Still, our rapid adoption of new technologies indicates that we may face such choices in the future. Adopting robotic dog training may provide a glimpse into the likelihood of our willingness to embrace automation of training and development of ourselves.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.