Ethics Quiz: The Robot Dog

Robot seals work too, apparently…

From a recent New York Times story:

When Linda Spangler asked her mother, in a video chat, what she would like as gift for her 92nd birthday, the response came promptly.

“I’d like a dog,” Charlene Spangler said. “Is Wolfgang dead?” Wolfgang, a family dachshund, had indeed died long ago; so had all his successors. Ms. Spangler, who lives in a dementia care facility in Oakland, Calif., has trouble recalling such history.

So Linda, who is a doctor, got her mother a dog.

Well, Mom thought it was a dog, anyway. It was a robot dog. Sensors allow it to pant, woof, wag its tail, nap and awaken, and users can feel a simulated heartbeat.


Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Was this ethical?

One approach is to look at the robopet solution as a strict utilitarian win. The mother was lonely, and wanted a dog to keep her company. Now she thinks she has a dog, and is feeling better. Yes, the “dog,” not being a real dog, is a lie, but the benefits of this lie far exceed the harm. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill would approve.

On the other side of the issue, the Times story interviewed professionals who found the practice ethically dubious.

 Opined one: “The promise [with such robotic pets] is that it becomes a companion and you have a relationship with it. As though there’s mutuality. There’s not mutuality. It’s a bunch of bits and bytes.”

“There’s an element of ethical dishonesty about it,” said another. Oh, I’d say there’s more than just an element. If someone is easy to lie to, does that make the lie more ethical? Instead of getting her mother a fake dog that she thinks is real, why doesn’t the daughter visit her mother more often?

Other thoughts:

  • Would it be just as acceptable to give a dementia sufferer a brick and tell her it’s a dog, as long as the deception “works”?
  • How about an invisible dog, like the one “owned” by one of the comic madwomen in “The Madwoman of Chaillot”?
  • Is this more Ick Factor than unethical?
  • Slightly off topic: the Times piece has this quote:

“Covid has created a bizarre world where nobody can hug anybody,” said Laurie Orlov, a veteran industry analyst and founder of the newsletter Aging and Health Technology Watch. “The idea of a pet you can hold — a tactile experience — transcends that somewhat.”

I am sick of the pandemic being used as a reflex excuse for incompetence, bad service, and misconduct.

Anyone else?

49 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Robot Dog

  1. Sometimes honesty is ridiculous, and unethical. The niggardly principle covers a type of potential abuse of plain speaking. Another example is the dog that runs out in the street to it’s death in the middle of an 8-year-old’s birthday party. Do you run in and tell the child? Of course not. You tell the child the dog got out inadvertently, and sadly report its untimely demise after a discreet period.
    In this case, perhaps the robot dog could show up as a gift, and let the thing work its magic, or not.
    Reminds me of a shock I had once when confronted with a middle-school child who asked me is Santa was real. Jr. high! I said, in all seriousness, that some things, and sories, are realer than real.

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