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Brave new world

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I DON'T know if you saw an article that appeared last year in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, which argued that pets will soon become a luxury in an overpopulated world and that the next generation will, unless fabulously rich, be unable to afford an animal companion. A sobering thought – we all love our pets – but the author went on to argue that recent advances in technology could mean that we might soon find ourselves with cyber cats and dogs that mimic the real thing instead, and be just as happy with them.

You could say, of course, that this has been predicted for some time; witness, for example, Doctor Who's robotic companion K9, who first appeared on television way back in 1977. Notable for certain features not normally associated with dogs (in particular the powerful laser weapon concealed in his nose), the Doctor's four-legged – sorry, four-wheeled – companion was ahead of his time. But, it now looks as if he was by no means a sci-fi dream. It would seem that the technological advances which have revolutionised so many aspects of our lives may well be about to bring robotic cats and dogs into our homes. And our veterinary practices.

I know what you're thinking. Never mind the loss of the much valued human-animal bond, it sounds like bad news for vets. What is the point in spending five or six years at college, learning about anatomy, bacteriology, pharmacology and the rest, if all this is to be swept away and rendered useless? Will we all have to retrain to cope with the new technology? Will we replace our surgical instruments with soldering irons and screwdrivers? Will the biochemistry machine be consigned to the dustbin, to be replaced by a diagnostic computer – akin to what my mechanic uses whenever my car develops a fault? Will we, when presented with an automated dog or cat that has malfunctioned, simply plug it into the computer, look at the read-out, and then replace the faulty semiconductors?

What is perhaps more intriguing – or worrying – is that the author of the article also predicted that these cyber pets will benefit – if that's the right word – from progress in artificial intelligence, or AI. Rather than our new pets being simply cold, programmed machines, they will develop their own traits; so we might have a robotic pet that has a bouncy it-must-be-dinnertime labrador character, or an automaton with a sullen, quick-tempered tortoiseshell cat personality.

But just how far will this go? Will we then have robotic pets that develop behavioural problems which require addressing? Could we start to see aggressive cyber dogs that always want to fight, and stress-laden robotic cats that destroy their owner's furniture? And will we need charities devoted to taking in unwanted robotic pets that have been put out on the streets by uncaring owners?

So, can I argue that the profession should embrace this new technology at the start? We cannot prevent the march of technology, but we can lobby government and designers to ensure that these new ‘animals’ have certain features that make them more pleasant to work with. If we can simply ensure that the AI software has a fail-safe, built-in capability to stop robotic dogs biting the vet during an examination, and that robotic cats are fitted with teeth and claws made from foam rubber, then we may start to see some advantages in all of this. What's more, there will be no more frustration that a pet won't take the prescribed medication (or that the owner will forget to give it!), we can wave goodbye to puddles of urine in the waiting room, and – perhaps best of all – the fear and stress, known throughout the profession, that comes with spaying a fat bitch will be banished forever!

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