Technology entrepreneurs have designed an animatronic dolphin so lifelike that volunteers who swam with it were unaware it was not alive until told the truth. Its battery lasts 10 hours, and it is resistant to saltwater for up to 10 years. This innovation, described in May by the website Interesting Engineering, could completely upend traditional live cetacean exhibits. The drive many people feel to interact with wildlife is strong; convincing them to suppress it so wildlife species do not have to suffer in captivity has proved difficult—especially when the message visitors receive from entertainment facilities is that the animals are happy in their limited environment.
But what if no animals had to suffer to satisfy this urge? Could a robot substitute for the real thing for entertainment purposes—educating and eliciting empathy without exploiting a living being? The expanding cetacean industry in China may be the testing ground for this idea; the creators intend to debut the new robot dolphin there in the near future. According to a 2019 report by the China Cetacean Alliance, of which AWI is a founding member, there are over 1,000 cetaceans in captivity in China. Among these are more than 500 bottlenose dolphins and more than 200 beluga whales.