As robot dogs take to the streets of China, could they ever replicate the companionship of man's best friend?

Walking the dog with a twist in Shanghai.
PHOTO: Thepaper.cn

Taking the pooch out for its regular walk is one of the great joys and chores of dog ownership. But does it apply if the dog is a robot?

This seemingly futuristic question may no longer be a thing of the past, as robot dogs have started to appear on short video platforms across mainland China, with one video receiving over 700,000 likes.

Wu Xiangyu, a Shanghai resident, is an owner of a robot dog, and walking the canine in his spare time has become a regular routine, he told mainland media outlet Thepaper.cn.

In Shanghai, the Xuhui district riverside is considered a mecca for dog walking and jogging. One day in December 2021, Wu chose to take his robot dog there for a walk for the first time.

A crowd gathers to investigate a robot dog in Shanghai. PHOTO: Thepaper.cn

Immediately upon its appearance, the robot drew a throng of curious observers. People even brought their dogs to meet the robot canine, wanting to introduce their pets to a "new friend".

However, Wu said the real dogs seemed warier than their owners, approaching and retreating, furiously barking as if to protect themselves from the unknown.

Wu's pet robot dog is called Cyberdog and is developed by Xiaomi, the Chinese company most famous for its phones.

The dog can run, make left and right turns, greet people and perform dog handshakes. It can even do backflips, an uncommon trick for regular dogs.

The product, debuted in August last year, is still in the public testing stage, so it has not yet been sold to the general population.

According to Wang Xingxing, the founder of Unitree, a company that also develops robot dogs, the "animals" could be used beyond the typical consumer market, such as becoming guide dogs.

The robot dogs do not resemble real dogs, and some people are wondering they are too dispassionate to take off. PHOTO: Thepaper.cn

Even though the robots are currently a niche hi-tech toy, there could be ethical and legal dilemmas if they become more widespread. For example, the dog's movement is mainly dependent on cameras in its eyes, so how does this apply to expectations of privacy? There are currently no Chinese laws covering robot pets.

While the robot dogs are convenient - when Wu turned on "auto-following", the dog walked right behind him, no leash, no pooping - they cannot replace the companionship of real dogs.

A major difference is that the robot dogs do not remotely resemble real dogs. The body is bare, and it looks more like a robot than a dog. Most of the time, its behaviour is determined by the owner's remote control rather than artificial intelligence.

"It does not give the same feeling as a real dog," said an online commenter in response to a popular robot dog video. "With a real dog, you can feel the bonding."

Another person replied: "This dog has no soul, no eye contact, not even a tail; you simply do not feel the joy of having a dog wagging its tail at you."

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.