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Is this robotic therapy pet the uncanny valley of dog?

Is this robotic therapy pet the uncanny valley of dog?


It was designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop

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There’s no shortage of social robots that promise to provide companionship, and the Tombot Puppy is the latest therapy robot to offer the kind of unconditional love that only a dog can give, provided the batteries stay charged forever. The golden Labrador retriever barks, wags, and responds to touch, providing emotional support to seniors, people with dementia, and anyone who can’t have a live pet. It’s funding now on Kickstarter and has already reached its $20,000 goal.

Tombot’s creators wanted the robot to look and behave as close to a real dog as possible, so they enlisted the help of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for the design. As a result, Tombot moves a lot like an animatronic puppet, (it sort of reminds me of Falkor from The Neverending Story, which I’m not sure is good or bad) and its lifelike expressions are a little bit unnerving. My immediate response to Tombot was, “There’s pain behind this dog’s eyes.” It looks too sad! That’s the risk you take when you try to make something look realistic — for comparison, the Qoobo therapy cat pillow sidesteps this issue by foregoing a head entirely.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think, it’s not for me; it’s a therapy robot for seniors and patients with dementia. There have been studies around the benefits of robotic pets like Paro the seal, which have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety among dementia patients. It’s also entirely possible for humans to form emotional bonds with robots — just look at Sony’s Aibo dogs, which are given Buddhist funerals in Japan when it’s time to say goodbye; or the Lovot companion robot I declared as my son after playing with it for 30 minutes at CES. That said, Tombot’s potential benefits haven’t been proven in any studies yet.

Tombot is a lot more affordable than the $2,899 Aibo and the $3,000 Lovot, too. Early backers can get Tombot for $299, but it’ll retail for $500 when it launches, with a target date of August 2020. Although as with all Kickstarters, keep in mind that production issues could keep the project from delivering on time, and use your best judgment before backing.