Three Cats Spent 12 Days with a Robot

Caitlin Dempsey


A cat in a green and blue room looks at the arms of a white robot.

Social media is full of funny videos of cats joyriding on robots. Seemingly unfazed by these moving vacuums, the cats in those videos seem to be entertained by their existence. With robotic assistance becoming more common—think robotic vacuums, lawn mowers, or shopping mall assistants—the researchers want to explore how robots could help with cat enrichment.

This led group of researchers with the University of Nottingham put designed an art installation that put three cats into a room for six hours a day for 12 days with a robot. The study, called Cat Royale, explored creating a robot to entertain cats by playing with toys and offering treats to the cats, named Clover, Pumpkin, and Ghostbuster.

The idea behind Cat Royale emerged from a curiosity about the relationship between autonomous systems and the natural behaviors of cats. Designing robots that cater not just to human needs but also to those of animals remains a largely unexplored territory.

Creating a cat “utopia”

To analyze if robots could be used to provide enrichment to cats over a prolonged period during the day, the researchers combined elements of performance art with human-computer interaction (HCI) research. This style of integrating scientific research with artistic expression is known as Performance-led Research in the Wild.

A specially designed enclosure was created for the three cats in the study in order to ensure their well-being while engaging spectators of the exhibit and accommodating the autonomous system’s operation. The set-up was reviewed by three ethical review boards from the University of Nottingham.

The enclosure was filled with toys, perches, and plants to make sure the cats were comfortable. A robotic arm was placed in the center in the center, was tasked with entertaining the cats using a variety of toys and treats.

Despite the autonomous design of the installation, human involvement was constant, ensuring the safety and well-being of the cats, adjusting the robot’s activities based on real-time observations, and managing the overall experience. A team of researchers monitored the cats’ reactions to the robot and made sure that the interactions were safe.

The cats’ reactions while in the enclosure were rated from a score from 1 for fully relaxed to 7 for terrified.

The installation also monitored and filmed the public’s interactions with the exhibit. The performance was edited into an eight-hour long film that was presented to audiences at the 2023 Curiocity Brisbane World Science Festival and at the National Science Gallery in London.

How well did the robot-led cat enrichment installation work?

The authors note that the ultimate goal of the study wasn’t an evaluation of the effectiveness of the robot in entertaining the cats: “our aim in this paper is not to evaluate the success of Cat Royale in terms of effectively playing with the cats, we do note that, from the perspective of the artists and wider team, the experience was judged to be successful.”

The authors found that none of the three cats exhibited high levels of stress being in the room and would wait at the door of the enclosure to enter. The three cats also voluntarily interacted with the robot when it would play games and offer toys to the felines. A cat behaviorist and the owner of the cats monitoring the exhibition found that the body language of the cats while in the enclosure to indicate comfort with the project.

Aim of the project

The overarching goal of the project was to explore how utonomous systems can be designed to cater to the diverse needs of a multispecies world (humans and non-humans like pets). The authors hope that the principles and learnings from Cat Royale can inspire future innovations in robot design, emphasizing the need for empathy, creativity, and cross-disciplinary collaboration in creating multispecies environments.

The artist-led team including Eike Schneiders, Steve Benford, Alan Chamberlain, Clara Mancini, Simon Castle-Green, Victor Ngo from the University of Nottingham, and Ju Row Farr, Matt Adams, Nick Tandavanitj from Blast Theory, will present their findings at the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) CHI conference on Human Factors in Computing System taking place in May of 2024 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The study:

Schneiders, E., Benford, S., Chamberlain, A., Mancini, C., Castle-Green, S., Ngo, V., … & Fischer, J. (2024). Designing Multispecies Worlds for Robots, Cats, and Humans. arXiv preprint arXiv:2402.15431

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.