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There’s a great scene in the comedy film Fierce Creatures involving a panda.
Vince McCain, the billionaire playboy put in charge of increasing profits at his father’s latest acquisition, a zoo, reveals its latest addition. Zookeepers are initially ecstatic at the unveiling of a panda exhibit. Then they notice something that raises their hackles.
Zookeeper: “You can’t put an animatronic [robotic] animal in a zoo!”
Vince: “Why not? It gave you a thrill.”
Zookeeper: “It’s not a real thrill, is it? It’s artificial.”
Vince: “Having pandas in England is artificial.”
He’s right. And it’s not just relocation of animals that makes a zoo artificial. Animal lifespans are often shorter in captivity. Practically limited diets and habitats can affect behaviors and even appearances. Having to listen to a wild bird or monkey enclosure every day would certainly change my behavior.
We have the technology to create entirely animatronic “zoo” attractions today. Decades ago, venues like the Houston Museum of Natural Science hosted robotic dinosaur exhibits which were popular. Animatronics continue to be shown … at much less expense than live exotic animals, I’d bet. Even the largest and most predatory “creatures” of this kind can be viewed up close and without spacious enclosures.
Consequently, let’s consider a few questions:
- In addition to traditional zoos, might there be a respectable market for robotic facsimiles?
- In lieu of live animals, could robotic replicas serve almost as well?
- What conditions might favor one or the other?
A typical animal in a zoo is not a pet. You can’t touch it. You can’t play with it. You just look at it. Half the time, it’s asleep, hiding from the weather, or otherwise not putting on a good show. Why not replace it with a robotic stunt double?