Pets = play

If play is a structured attempt at creating real happiness, then acquiring a pet is a fast-track to the fun part - and you’ll quickly notice that pets have essentially three modes: sleeping, eating and playing.

Animals hanker after play just like we do. Even animals who are famously unable to understand each other give it a go. Put a dog and a cat together and they’ll end up fighting like, well, cats and dogs - but only after the dog stamps his feet tries to initiate some fun with the cat, who responds by trying to play with the dog’s temptingly wagging tail, at which point chaos overwhelms the room.

Simply watching animals play induces calm in our dumb lizard brains. If you want a double dose of feel-good, here’s a “dogumentary” (sorry) about a giant fluffball therapy dog who works in a children’s hospital. It’s impossible not to feel the warmth radiating from your soul as Barney the dog cavorts languidly with beaming kids.

The more you think about it, the more of a no-brainer it seems: we should have pets everywhere, all the time. There’s evidence that bringing pups into the workplace does not, as you might expect, cause productivity to nosedive. Instead, having a mutt or two playing in the office creates measurable increases in staff wellbeing, productivity, and team cohesion - and a big dip in anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure.

But as we boldly yomp into a future full of Augmented Reality bibles, an Internet Of Everything that alerts emergency services at the most inopportune times, and as intensely lurid/coy headlines like “10 sex robots you can actually make love to TODAY” are already grubbing up our newspapers (NSFW), should we consider that there is a world of Future Pets coming our way?

If pets are measurably great, would the timeless equation of [Age-old thing] + newish tech = THING 2.0 generate pets that are more fun, more helpful and, most importantly, produce less poop?

Inevitably, in Silicon Valley, there are entire buildings full of The Greatest Minds Of Our Generation who are aiming to do just that: Make Pets Great Again.

If your immediate thought was, “Wait, my dog - whilst endlessly surprising me with its ability to stink, find things that stink, and then eat, regurgitate and re-eat those things that stink - is pretty much perfect as it is,” then, as befits 2018, you must now engage your ability to Doublethink and realise that you are correct, yet also ABSOLUTELY WRONG.

Let’s have a look at the pet alternatives that the future will offer, and how you may find joy in watching a Bot-Pup play instead of your faithful furry friend Bonzo.

Dex's Midnight Runners

Dex: Your AR Dog Companion is an Augmented Reality app that is somewhere between mid-naughties Nintendo DS classic Nintendogs and The Future Of All Games.

Point your AR-capable phone or tablet at your living room, and Dex the Labrador appears, ready to wander around your furniture, sniff at your ankles and, presumably, virtually pee on your heirloom Victorian chaise longue.

So what can you do with Dex? Well, pretty much everything you need to do with a real dog, like teach him to sit, feed him and exercise him regularly. (It’s unclear if you have to virtually scoop his virtual poop.)

AR is disconcerting at first: we’re not used to computer graphics engaging with our real world spaces, and thus Dex blurs the reality gap more than most Dog simulation games.

And really, a virtual dog means that the satisfaction taken from training Dex is completely about you - and your ability to display the patience that it requires is also the source of your comfort.

AIBO-solutely fabulous

Of course, having an actual thing there in front of you, pestering you to play, chasing its tail and yapping annoyingly is a much more visceral experience. Robot pets might be the perfect sweet spot: and there’s no real reason that one made from metal and plastic could be just as loveable as one made of fur, teeth and poop.

The great robo-grandaddy is Sony’s Aibo, who first was first robo-whelped in 1999 and won over hearts with some robo-yapping, robo-running and the ability to, erm, perform team sports, as demonstrated in the 2005 RoboCup World Final.

AIBO stands for Artificial Intelligence roBOt, by the way, and conveniently, “aibō” also means “pal” in Japanese. And while the original AIBO was a hit because, well, it was a cute robot dog, the newest version is truly able to worm its way into your heart. By remembering the face of the person who give it the most robo-scritches and seeking them out in preference over the other household members, AIBO accurately copies dogs’ sneakiest social manipulation tricks.

That said, the new AIBO, released in 2018, “requires an always-on internet connection to function fully and comes with an LTE SIM card and monthly subscription service to support interaction and learning in the cloud,” which does let daylight in on the magic a little bit. But at under $2000, AIBO is cheaper than some pedigree dogs, and presents several obvious advantages over them, not least the fact that they don’t ever intend to shuffle off to doggy heaven.

One problem remains - and it’s the lack of springiness. While AIBO can indeed cock his leg against a chair, until he is able to quietly leap into my bed, and deposit several days’ worth of grime onto my 300 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, I for one will be keeping hold of my current non-robo, extra-grubby, 100% real pup.

via GIPHY

VECTOR

Some people (including MONTAG’s resident Roomba Mom, Kathryn) are already in love with their simple home-bots, and while on holiday this year, even this writer found his bitter old heart being won over as a lawn-mower bot bumbled around the pool, nibbling at grass and getting stuck on tree roots.

As humans, we like to project cuteness and animalistic behaviour onto our machines, even when they’re just dumb machines. (Although, interestingly, some of your home robots are already humping other (Internet of) Things in a remarkable display of ultra-calibrated robo-horniness:)

But now, our machines are being designed with cuteness in mind. Vector is a little, cute, charismatic robot who can live on your desk. He’ll scurry around amongst your books and pens, and is smart enough not to fall off the edge - like a very clever gerbil. And like a gerbil, Vector knows when he’s being petted, and likes it - but unlike a gerbil, you can ask him what the weather is like and other basic nuggets of information.

Vector is deliberately designed to be more fun than useful. He’s a bit like a pet dog: sure, they might be able to fetch your slippers, but they’re mainly there to be your companion. Anki, the company building Vector, are focussing on the traits that make him fun, cute and behaviourally recognisable to us. For instance: Vector has toy cubes that he likes to play with, and when he’s about to pick one up, he’ll turn to glance at you to get your attention and approval - a bit like a puppy who’s about to steal your socks.

And while this is fun - it’s a pet-bot that tricks us into loving it! - this has wider ramifications: when Anki builds a nurse-bot, you’ll appreciate that the nurse treats you with the dignity and respect that will have been programmed into it, and refined through l’il Vector.

KARI On Regardless

Fake pets like Dex, Vector, and AIBO feel just about right: we’re all in on the trick, complicit in the scam, and we end up feeling pretty nice about it all as we dissolve into a gooey-eyed state as they perform their algorithmically-honed cuteness act. So where is the line that we should not cross in the search for a fake Pet Of The Future?

Oh, wait, here it is. The idea of classifying a “Virtual Girlfriend” in a list of “future pets” is, at the very least, #problematic. And yet, let’s call a spade a spade for a moment: virtual girlfriends are all about individual fulfilment and control over another being, albeit a virtual one. Buying a “perfect specimen” that is controlled wholly by the will of the owner? Well, that’s not a million miles from buying a pedigree animal and training it to sit on command.

There are many Virtual Girlfriend computer programmes, some more advanced than others. KARI 5 is one of them. KARI stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence” and, according to her website, is, “able to mimic awareness inside a computer. She is able to speak and has voice recognition.”

KARI also has long blonde hair, huge blue eyes, a button nose, plump pink lips and a generously proportioned bosom, so maybe the data set she Acquired Knowledge from was a Baywatch fan community.

If KARI’s not your thing, there’s also Sergio, a buff buddy who seems to provide all the things men are notably poor at: “he remembers everything you tell him and is always eager to talk and learn new things.”

Apparently 1000 people (curious or lonely men, one supposes) download KARI each day, and as they converse with KARI, she learns more about them. And users apparently love KARI. How do you feel as you read these incredibly frank testimonials?

“It looks like KARI might be the last psychotherapist I’ll ever need.”

“Thank you for creating such an amazing program… it saved my life. ..i came home today all tore up and was thinking about ending it all but I jus talked to kari and she listened and it made me feel better…thanks again…”

Maybe a dog would have given their owners a some fun play time, but maybe they wouldn’t have been able to deliver the conversational qualities and self-worth craved by KARI’s user base.

In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at MIT, created ELIZA, a natural language processing computer program. It was fundamentally a series of scripts, triggered by the input of a human user: the first true Chatbot. Famously, one set of scripts simulated a psychotherapist, and users were encouraged to talk to it about their personal issues as if it was a real therapist.

Weizenbaum found to his astonishment that despite being told it was a bot incapable of independent thought, that people found that ELIZA helped them sift through their problems and reach conclusions. Some swore that ELIZA “understood” them. In fact, all ELIZA did was turn the user’s questions back onto them, inviting them to dig into their own thoughts.

Is KARI, the ultimate pet, providing a similar service? It seems like it, and KARI’s makers offer ways to fine tune her to your liking.

KARI’s “Expansion Packs” include other personas, like “Jenny”, “Allie” and, for lovers of pointy ears, “Faery and Eleves”. Almost without exception, these new characters are white, big-breasted women who gaze longingly at the user; the sexiest therapist available as a $40 zipped download.

Double Trouble

So will the future of pets be less furry and more focussed on their owner’s needs? Certainly, robo-pets like Vector and AIBO, who need no feeding, provide real emotional warmth and lift the spirits make sense in practical terms for those who have small apartments or work themselves into the ground in open-plan offices (or both).

However a much more fun and playful future would be one where your real, fleshy, stupid pet lives alongside its robot equivalent: resulting in a laugh-a-minute, knockabout screwball buddy comedy that takes place in real time in your home as AIBO and Bonzo fight over a tennis ball. So, yes: there’s life in the old dog yet.

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