February 29, 2024

Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNET

You know that feeling you get when something’s become a thing and you had no idea?

Well, I felt that way when I discovered that everyone — apparently — was saying “delulu.” (This, it seems, signifies an unrealistic solution to all of life’s problems.)

Also: The 15 best robots and AI tech we saw at CES 2024

Today, though, I’d like to present you with a new thing — to me: robot cats in libraries. 

When a bandit is on your side

I first came across it when I heard about Bandit, Percival, and Mr. Pickles.

Surprisingly, this isn’t a firm of lawyers, nor even a comedy act from the last century.

Instead, these three are robot cats that live in the Eugene Public Library in Eugene, Oregon. 

And they’ve become extremely popular robot cats.

Also: This pet robot lets you watch, play with, and treat your dog or cat from anywhere

As Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported, the library’s customers are involved in a festival of adoration when it comes to these three black-and-white robot felines.

Kate Berry, one of the library’s adult services supervisors, told OPB: “They’re typically for folks who maybe are suffering memory loss or maybe just are living alone and kind of lonely. But really, anyone can check them out. They purr. They meow. They’re really fun to have.”

What’s clear, though, is that the robot cats haven’t merely charmed the library’s visitors, but also its staff.

They have been so moved by the way these robot cats have brought peace to so many that they bought a couple for themselves. (Theirs are gray-and-white.)

Children’s services supervisor Heather Sears told OPB: “There’s research that shows cats purring is therapeutic. So we have a kind of quiet room that we have placed one of our cats. Staff have actually really enjoyed that — maybe you had a stressful part of your day or something’s happened and you just need a moment, and you can come hang out with one of our cats that are here that are not circulating.”

Please imagine, then, that some people will waft into the library and simply hang out with the likes of Bandit. They can even brush him and generally commune with him as if he were real.

Many people even book the robot cats as they would, say, a book and take it home.

It’s a thing. A real thing

I confess this lifted my spirits greatly.

You see, my wife and I had a robot cat for a little while and, as regular readers may know, the experience was a touch imperfect.

Not finding suitable adopters, we ended up taking it to a local electronics recycling center, where the owner looked at us with benign bemusement. Before adopting the cat, of course.

Also: Can AI curb loneliness in older adults? This robot companion is proving it’s possible

To discover that so many people are, by contrast, finding robot cats to be wonderful companions was fascinating.

But wait a minute, I mused to myself, is this an isolated inspiration from the Eugene Library or might it be a more widespread phenomenon?

It was time for a little research.

Everywhere you can find a good book

Here’s Manistee County Library in Michigan with a veritable array of robotic pets. Cats, dogs and even a bird.

Julie Cirone, the library’s interim director, told the Manistee News Advocate: “They have lifelike features including a realistic weight, they are responsive to touch, they purr and have a heartbeat, and they warm as they are sitting in a lap.”

Let’s now drift to the Hastings Public Library, also in Michigan. There, just beneath Botley the Coding Robot is: “Robotic Cat. Coming January 2024.”

Now you might be wondering what the rules are for going to your local public library and taking a robot cat home with you.

Also: Boston Dynamics robot dog can answer your questions now, thanks to ChatGPT

Helpfully, the Reading Public Library in Massachusetts offers some guidelines.

The library explains the sort of things you can expect its robot cat to do: “He purrs happily when you pet his head or back. He moves his head towards your hand when you pet his cheeks, and if you keep petting him he will roll on his back so you can pet his belly!”

That does sound quite realistic. The library does, however, extend its own form of realism: “The total replacement cost for the robotic cat is $150. A $5.00 per day fee will be applied if material is returned late. This item is available for checkout to Patrons 18 years or older.”

Please be warned. You can’t readily keep them forever, like that copy of “Pride and Prejudice” you forgot to give back in 2016.

It seems, then, that America’s libraries have become homes for robot cats. They bring peace and companionship to many. And that’s a good thing.