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The Robo-cat experiment

Many people who live with a cat urge their elderly relatives to get one too. A cat, these felinophiles argue, is a great companion. Imagine sitting at home, with a cat sprawled out on the sofa, purring gently and sharing what would otherwise be an evening alone. A cat brings friendship, life and a reason to get up every morning.

'Well, yes,' counters the elderly relative. 'Cats also shred sofas and curtains, dump dead rodents in unexpected places and use a litter tray (or even worse, do not use a litter tray). They want to go out while you are on the phone, and to be fed just as the TV is getting interesting. As for a reason to get up every morning, some cats make it impossible for you to lie in whether you want to or not.'

Toy manufacturer Hasbro has listened to these objections, and produced what the company considers the perfect solution. That is, a cat that provides warmth and companionship, but never needs feeding or a clean litter tray. There's no cat hair to pick out of your toothbrush during the shedding season, and when you go to visit the grandchildren you can leave the cat alone for as long as you like without needing to make complicated arrangements with the neighbours. All that this wonder cat needs to keep going is a recharge every now and then.

Recharge? Well, yes. This is not a real cat but a 'Companion Pet' (TM) which offers all the love and friendship that 1.5 volts and four alkaline batteries can provide. According to Hasbro's promotion web page, the robo-cat, err, that is, Companion Pet is 'so much more than soft fur, soothing purrs and pleasant meows.' In fact interacting with the pet provides a 'two-way give-and-take [that] helps create a personally rich experience that can bring fun, joy and friendship to you and your loved ones.'

Not surprisingly this claim has met with a certain degree of scepticism. 'Perfect for the kind of person who likes to water plastic flowers,' huffed one reviewer. 'Creepy,' remarked Techradar. 'An incredibly terrifying facsimile of a real animal,' opined Amy Keyishian on the re/code website. A number of reviewers point out that Hasbro have dropped their robo-cat right into the depths of the 'uncanny valley'.

As a robot becomes more lifelike, human liking of that robot steadily increases, until suddenly, that liking abruptly becomes unease, or even revulsion. Scientists have theorized we don't mind a robot looking realistic up to a certain point. But once a robot becomes too realistic, we reach that 'uncanny valley' and become uncomfortable. We know that there is something unnatural about the thing, but it is so realistic that it is hard to tell what that 'something' is.

You would think that with a robo-cat it's not too hard to tell, as Hasbro's creation does not sink its claws into your thigh to inform you that it is supper-time, or consider that a cat sitting on your face is motivation enough to get up in the morning. However, your battery-powered felis mechanicus does come with VibraPurr that 'sounds and feels like real purring', and when you stroke the artificial cheek, the robo-cat's head will nuzzle into your hand. Prolonged stroking will cause the robo-cat to roll over for a belly rub.

Those people who live with actual cats will tell you that there is a whole lot more to a real cat than that. Cats may not be human, but they are definitely people, with their own individual personalities, quirks and sometimes eccentric likes and dislikes.

Nevertheless, there may be something in the plushy imitations. Seniors who have been asked to try the Companion Pets seem moderately happy with them, although since the 'pet' has not yet been offered to the wider public, the sample group is too small for a definite verdict on whether the product will be a success.

Much will depend on how Hasbro manages expectations. The company is confident enough in its product to have mailed 'cats' to selected reviewers, and by and large those reviewers have responded positively, but cautiously. In our opinion, as a substitute cat the Companion Pet simply lacks personality. As a plushy toy with some great animations it works very well. Whether this is enough to provide the 'Joy for All' of the marketing slogan remains to be seen.

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