My pet dog is going to live forever.
Maybe “live” is the wrong word — he’s 15 years old and has had at least two major strokes. He pisses on the floor at least once per fortnight, and as a running companion, he’s the worst.
We first thought he was dead on Boxing Day, when the massive blood clot which had been sitting on his heart finally shook itself loose and lodged in his brain, leaving him unable to move his hindquarters and forcing him to drag himself across the floor towards us like some pitiable canine version of the terminator.
If any vets had been open at the time, we’d have said our tearful final goodbyes as a massive dose of pentobarbital pushed him into blissful, pain-free unconsciousness, before shutting down the fibrillating remnants of his heart.
He got better.
By teatime, he was able to stand with some assistance, and stagger from his bed in the living room through to the kitchen.
By the next morning, he was capable of walking, extremely slowly, to the bottom of the road and back.
We decided to let him live, and within a month, he was back to his usual self. A miracle. Hallelujah.
Five months later, I found him collapsed in the porch, where he had been waiting for me to come home. The paralysis was worse this time, and I had to physically drag him through the house to his bed. Because of our previous experience, we decided to give him a couple of days and see what happened. Again he recovered like a champ – although for several weeks, he couldn’t hold his head up straight.
He’s fine now. We went for a five mile walk yesterday, and he’s sleeping next to me on the couch as I write this. He hasn’t had a major cerebral incident in months, and the pissing – I put that down to his cunning ability to detect chocolate at any distance, and his annoying tendency to drink my coffee whenever I put it down for more than three seconds.
But he’s going to die eventually. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in couple of years. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the oldest dog who ever lived. He could be functionally immortal, but I doubt it. I guess “forever” is the wrong word as well.
Having Said Goodbye To An Old Friend
And when the inevitable finally comes to pass, what then? Do I get a puppy? Do I get another shelter dog? I want a dog as much like my current dog as possible, so it’s an option to get his genes sampled and find out exactly what blend of the 57 varieties he actually is. And then I can simply find another one.
Or I could have him cloned, as this Texas lab offers for a very reasonable $50,000. An exact genetic replica of the original. One who I will grow to love and watch as he succumbs to the same series of heart defects and transient ischaemic attacks in his twilight years. This poses additional ethical questions — see Should I Clone My Dog?
What if I could have a dog who would never die? One who would never get old and frail and ill, and habitually balance on that knife edge of life and death as I will him not to go into the light?
Enter The Virtual Pet
Virtual pets are a very real phenomenon.
Anyone who was alive in the 1990’s will remember the Tamagotchi craze. In case you weren’t paying sufficient attention, Tamagotchis were virtual pets who lived out their virtual lives in isolation on an egg-shaped plastic key ring with three buttons. Owners could feed their pets, play with them, punish them, and even give them medicine when they were sick. But no matter how well Tamagotchi enthusiasts cared for the 12 or so greyscale pixels which made up their adoring charge, few lived much longer than a fortnight before dying of age related causes, and being whisked into the pixel sky by either an angel or a UFO.
While it’s possible that Bandai could release a model which, if properly cared for, would live forever, most pet owners want a more fulfilling experience than simply pressing a button to feed or show affection. A button to automatically clean up faeces would be nice.
Furbies were another 90’s must have – fur covered plastic robots with large, unseeing eyes, and a basic vocabulary in a language called “furbish.” A simple algorithm allowed them to ‘learn’ so convincingly that they were banned from the headquarters of the NSA as potential spies.
And The Robot Pet
A Furby can sort-of move, sort-of talk, and best of all, is completely covered in fur, to help stave off loneliness as we cuddle on the couch in between swapping out the TV remote control batteries to help save its potentially ceaseless existence. But the Furby was a toy and its so-called intelligence was a trick – it didn’t actually learn or memorise phrases, and the NSA had no real cause to be worried. The ban on Furbies in government buildings was repealed shortly afterwards – presumably because no-one wanted them any more. And it’s not surprising – they’re shit and they’re designed to appeal to an audience of eight year olds.
For proper robotic pets, we need to look at the retirement communities to which solitary oldsters are shipped when their younger relatives tire of them. Old people are miserable and afraid. They’ve seen their friends die, their spouse is probably long gone, and they themselves are staring down the twin barrels of the grim reaper’s Mossberg 12 gauge, watching his itchy trigger finger from the corner of their cataract clouded eyes. No-one likes to be around people who are too far gone to take care of themselves.
Pets distract. Pets mean that geriatrics have someone to look after – like a surrogate child, long after their real kids have moved to the far side of the world and forgotten all about their frail progenitors. Pets give their owners something to worry about other than themselves and the ever accelerating countdown towards the end of their lives.
Unfortunately, pets also need feeding on a regular basis. They need exercise, and they need someone who is physically able to pick up the several pounds of brown stink they deposit on the local sidewalks every day. Added to which is the ever present worry that when the hooded gunman of the apocalypse does finally pull the trigger, Fido will quite happily eat an entire human face before anyone arrives to let him out of the front door.
Robotic dogs are already in use as part of live animal therapy to help Alzheimer’s sufferers to deal with the symptoms of their condition. Artificial animals are introduced early in the disease’s development so that patient’s can form an emotional attachment to the whirring, 80s’s style animatronic before their minds slip so far that they’re unable to even recognise the shape of a dog.
Jennie, the robot dog barks, is able to sense its environment, and is controllable by either voice or through a phone app – perfect for when the nursing staff want to screw around with their charges.
The Search for Verisimilitude
Jennie is certainly a step up from a Furby – but not much of one. It is immeasurably less disturbing than Hasbro’s 2016 robot cat, which was so deep into Uncanny Valley, it would have needed a navigation implant to get out. No. In 2020, the realistic robotic pet market is still terrible, and still almost exclusively designed with companionship for old folks in mind.
In my cyberpunk opinion, ultrarealism is the wrong way to go. No matter how good the electronic gear running your new best friend, it will still be obvious to even a casual visitor that your cat is actually a toy, and people will think you’re weird for pretending otherwise.
In science fiction, cyborg companions are rarely a hollow suit of human leather crammed with electronics – because that would be disturbing. They may be human shaped, but they’re shiny chrome or plastic. Obviously Terminator and Blade Runners are exceptions to this, but even Maria Shriver no longer wants Arnie in her living room, and the lifespan problems associated with Dick’s androids are too heartbreaking to overcome.
Taxidermy In The Uncanny Valley
An artificial animal, like an artificial human, needs to be obvious. Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog sort of moves like a dog, and has a decent level of artificial intelligence, along with the added bonus that no-one is ever going to mistake it for an actual dog. It’s also super useful for carrying the groceries, opening doors, or giving you a lift into town.
Boston Dynamics lists Big Dog as a legacy project – meaning that they aren’t working on it any more, but the fully artificial aesthetic is being faithfully continued by China’s Elephant Robotics, who exhibited a prototype of Marscat at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in January.
Marscat, as far as we can tell, has nothing to do with either the dead planet or the bloodthirsty god of War. It’s a robotic cat with a plastic shell, controlled by a Raspberry Pi.
According to the company, “MarsCat is a purrfect cat who enjoys spending quality time playing with you. She can feel you, hear you and comfort you in her own way. Interactions are joyful. She can be a good companion.”
That’s certainly reassuring if you’re one of the 238 backers who have already pledged a minimum of $649 to the kickstarter campaign.
Marscat comes with an array of open source modules including vision, haptic, microcontroller, and gyro sensor. Best of all you can program her behaviours yourself. Want to give her a a scream like a banshee and a built-in inclination to attack postmen and large dogs on sight? Fine, do it. A Japanese schoolgirl voice and a tendency to purr on your crotch? That choice is there for you, too.
Taxidermy is an option. My ancient hound spends most of his time sleeping these days. Most days, I probably wouldn’t notice much difference. If I want a perfect replica, its likely to cost somewhere in the region of $4,000. I’m fairly sure I could find someone who’s willing to do it for $50. Hell, I can buy the taxidermy supplies on Amazon, and do it myself.
On the other hand, there are soft toy companies who can make a perfect cuddly replica for a very reasonable cost.
But a dog which doesn’t move is no good as a pet. Nor are the plethora of plastic AI alternatives out there.
Boston Dynamics’ Spot goes on sale this year. It’s roughly the same physical size as my actual dog, and is capable of walking for 90 minutes at a speed of 3 MPH. It avoids obstacles, it climbs stairs, it doesn’t mind the rain. Early adopters need to register an interest before they are able to purchase one, and my name is already on the pre-order list.
The taxidermy tools will help in acquiring a fine new fur coat to stretch over Spot’s frame, and fortunately, I know a dog who won’t be needing theirs for too much longer.
While skin and fur can be treated to prevent them from decaying over time, teeth and eyes will need to be replaced. The teeth will be easy, but Spot will need a convenient location to mount the orientation cameras, and a convenient port through which to swap out the batteries.
These changes, subtle as they are, should prevent him from being too realistic, and keep him away from Uncanny Valley. Plasticized fur, metal teeth, and glowing eyes – no one will mistake him for a real dog. Although it’s possible the police may have to deal with reports of a cyber-Cerberus prowling the mean streets of northern England.
I guess when I look at it that way, my dog IS going to live forever.