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Purr. Whirr.

Hitting the 'Off' Switch

That sobering and intoxicating question brings us back to robotics.

Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and author of "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit," believes there is a huge future for robotic pets -- on this planet and others. Like the Libins, she has been studying the effects of robotic pets on people. She is convinced that people are responding to the new generation of robo-pets because people are basically lonely and vulnerable. And though they may not want to feed and clean up after the mechanical animals, they do want more and more expressions of affection from the machines. "We are being asked to take care of these computers," she says. "And that is one of the most seductive things."

Advantages Cleo, above, has over a real cat are that the robo-cat does not have to be fed or cleaned up after, like the frisky cloned kittens Tabouli and Baba Ganoush, top right, with Genetic Savings & Clone chief executive Lou Hawthorne last year. GS& C chief scientific officer Philip Damiani, right, is working to meet a deadline for cloning a dog. "I feel the pressure every day when I come to work," Damiani says. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

Humans should be wary, she says. "Nurturance is the killer app."

And, of course, this puts us back into willing servitude.

Irony alert: As we build more-needy machines that act more like animals, we are also developing less-needy animals that act more like machines.

With pets, as with just about everything else, there is never just one future. There are many -- varied and diverse. The futures of pets are less certain than our own. We will grow old, our memories will melt away, we will continue our quest for novelty, and community and love. Ultimately, the kind of pet we will choose in our own future says as much about us as it does about our options. Are we comfortable with machines or do we like the woodsy smell of a hunting dog's coat? Would we rather speak to our Internet-informed parrot or dangle yarn between a kitten's little paws?

"Robotic pets in some ways have advantages," says the Human Society's Armstrong. But there is true joy "in seeing a person respond to a kitten or cat that purrs, sits in their lap, or a dog that licks its face. It's that heartbeat. It's that living thing. I hardly think a robotic pet makes somebody feel needed."

Or possibly robotic pets will create a whole new variety of relationships.

Back in the Libins' home office, Cleo the robot cat meows and meows. It's a cool day and the windows are open. Real birds twitter in the real trees as the real sun sets.

Alex Libin says that living with robotic pets has given him an even greater appreciation for real-life animals. But he also appreciates the robot's gifts: Though Cleo is animatronically correct, it is strictly confined in its movements, and there is no chance it will accidentally walk across the table, knock over the plate of cookies, bump into cups of hot tea or interfere in any way with the couple's lifestyle.

As the Libins move around the room, Cleo's mechanical mewing becomes more pronounced. It is agitated and does not want to settle down. "She needs a lot of attention," Elena Libin explains.

Alex laughs and says his wife is now performing therapy on the robot. "The main idea behind these robots," says Alex, "was to create a model of a living creature."

The more life-like the robot, the more people respond.

Of course, Alex says above the constant mewing, there is one trumping advantage that Cleo has over any real or cloned or genetically modified pet. "If you become extremely annoyed," he says, "you can just turn her off."

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