LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Artificial cats and other man-made companions could be keeping Britain's elderly company within three years if society can be persuaded to start experimenting with robots.
A report by the Royal Academy of Engineering published on Thursday shows robot soldiers and surgery devices are rapidly being developed, but the legal and ethical debate is lagging.
"This is not constrained by the technological possibility of it so much as by the desire to do it -- and that is bound up with all sorts of social factors," said Professor Will Stewart of Southampton University, who contributed to the report.
As well as robotic pets, autonomous systems could be morphed into robot babysitters, artificial therapists and social or even sexual companions, the report said.
With Britain's elderly population set to grow around 50 percent by 2020, robotic companions could also help monitor the health of Britain's increasingly grey population.
"It is not a complete replacement for your kid calling you once a week. What you want is continuous attention and that is very difficult," said Stewart.
A robotic pet could help raise the alarm in the case of an accident, monitor fridge contents to make sure the elderly do not go hungry while voice prompts could remind them to switch off the heating.
The ethical challenges facing a robotic revolution include concerns that artificial pets or helpers could lead to social isolation for the elderly. The large amount of personal data recorded by any monitoring would also need to be regulated.
"Our legal structures and ethical thinking are still in the age of automation," said Dr Chris Elliott, a report contributor. "They have to catch up before our safety and quality of life can benefit from autonomous systems."
If legal and ethical hurdles are cleared, some robotic systems could be available in a year or two while significantly deployable systems would take around three years.
Once fully developed, the robotic pets could offer Britons a similar service to a live-in helper.
"We are trying to offer everybody the sort of service the rich would have had 50 years ago," said Stewart.
(Editing by Steve Addison)