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Musings On Digital Pets

Lets first accept that the artificial animals we’ve managed to make so far aren’t quite up to normal standards. They’re clumsy battery-powered things no more nimble than a puppy in a suit of lead armour. And none have anything remotely approaching the complexity of a real pet, so far. In reality not many among us have played with robo-pets mainly because they’re all either cheap and disappointing, or very expensive.

Because not many people have played with them, most people’s opinion about robot pets is along the lines of “oh, what a sad thing, imagine trying to play with a robot dog instead of a real one”. Robot dogs and cats are a very long way from being self-aware. Really, they’re not even on the road to consciousness, any more than airplanes are on the way to being birds. If you want something that actually does the sorts of things that a dog will do, a robot is an appallingly bad substitute.

But robot pets, so far, are not meant to be substitutes for real pets in the general sense. Nobody, including the manufacturers, is pretending that they are. What they are, are interesting toys in the shape of an animal. All of the world’s working robots operate in very tightly controlled environments, like automotive assembly lines, and have nothing that can fairly be called “brainpower” at all.

But robo-pets don’t have to be useful. Sure, it’d be cool if they could fetch the newspaper from the porch and scare off intruders. But most cats don’t do anything useful, and they’re popular enough. Think about the problem of making a robot companion-thing, as opposed to a robot butler. Think about the practical pointlessness of the cat. And also think about people’s ability to love all sorts of things, alive and dead.

Nobody’s too likely to anthropomorphise their automatic mower, but look at the relationships people have with cars, computers and teddy bears. Human beings tend to perceive consciousness and personality in things which do not actually have them. If a gadget sets out to seem alive, lots of people will treat it that way. Humans are good at finding complex patterns, even where none really exist.

As the owner of Tank, a cat whose behavior could be pretty easily flowcharted (with a large number of arrows leading to the boxes marked “keep armchair warm” and “inhale large bowl of food”), I have more than once found myself wondering how much of the personality I see in his roughly spherical fuzzy form is of my own invention.

Brain size maps poorly to intelligence, and intelligence itself is a massively slippery concept, but my beloved feline’s imposing body (a testament to the awesome power of Whiskas) is steered by a roughly 30 gram brain, which, to be frank, doesn’t seem to be in any danger of failure due to over-use. Tank practically never does anything I don’t expect him to do.

A flowcharted version of Tank would be using its randomizer, weighted by its hunger index, to determine whether it would stay curled up on the couch or come and beg for food. The chance of him doing anything else at all for the next six hours approaches zero.

An active, outdoorsy sim-cat that could interact well with real animals would be far more problematic. But most of the persona of a peaceful lap-warming homebody like Tank might well be simulated adequately by an unrevolutionary expert system. The marketing people would say it had emotions, but they’re saying that already about Robot pets and that lot make flatworms look like Einstein. The robo-pets, that is. Not the marketing people. I’m sure every one of the marketroids has a towering intellect.

An indoor robo-fuzzy-thing programmed for not much more than cheerful affection is not a monstrous coding task. It’s the body that’s the problem. Making a legged robot that can jump up on a couch, and that doesn’t cost as much as a fighter jet, is tricky.

Limitations like not being able to deal with the outdoors would actually be an advantage for a hypothetical future robo-cat. The whole idea of a true artificial pet (as opposed to a mere animal-shaped gadget), after all, is that it’s a pet for people who can’t have, or don’t want, a real one. And one big reason why people don’t have real pets is that they live somewhere, like a little home unit, in which mammalian pets are forbidden. Such places often have no outdoors that a real cat could safely access. Plus, robo-pets can do computery things that real animals can’t like counting how many times you open the fridge and telling you when your snack-free diet seems to have failed.

It could be demoralizing to consider someone with a robo-thing that sat on their lap and purred realistically, but which only did it because it was programmed to. A big part of the pleasure of patting a cat or dog is that you’re genuinely making something else happy. But if someone owns a robo-pet, and loves it, and gets joy from patting it, does it matter whether it real is or not?

Many people already get very attached to all sorts of creatures which are, arguably, only very dimly self-aware, or not self-aware at all. Your average insect pet, with a few hundreds of thousands of neurons at most in its whole body, for instance.

The if-you-love-a-machine-then-you’re-not-truly-human crowd have a serious hole in their argument. Lots of people love machines already, and at least half-believe that the machines have personalities. These people are not, on the whole, soulless dead-eyed monsters. Most of them, of course, don’t love machines that look like animals. Yet.

Importantly, robo-pet buyers might be the sort of people that, otherwise, might let their cat out to get squished on a busy road, or to eat the native wildlife. Or might simply abandon it when they got bored with it. Then we’d all be glad that they had, instead of a real animal, something that can’t suffer, any more than it can really be happy.

And if later model robo-pets turn out to appeal to the kinds of people who’d otherwise be irresponsible real pet owners, with un-desexed animals that spit out a new generation of unwanted babies every ten minutes, then the net effect of even a high-priced robo-pet to stop them from polluting the world with yet more poor surplus animals might well be very positive indeed.

Perhaps, soon, having animals for companionship will be like using animals for transport. A bit peculiar. Inefficient, on the whole. More trouble than it’s worth. One can only hope the domestic dog and cat aren’t likely to become endangered species. But perhaps artificial pets will be able to deliver a startlingly realistic dose of love to people who otherwise would have had to make do with a goldfish, while allowing less responsible folks a pet that doesn’t mind at all if you just stuff it in a cupboard when it bores you.

If people can derive joy from a worm-brained fuzzball that moves about on four plush-furred balloon tires and rubs up against warm things, then good luck to them, I say. Heck, I might buy one, Tank could use the exercise.

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