Thursday, August 21, 2014

2H2K - July 2050 - Artificial Animals and Artificial Comfort - An Introduction:

Westinghouse's "Elektro" at the 1939 New York World's Fair. via Paleofuture

About the time Greg Borenstein and I began working on 2H2K, my father fell ill and was dying. I spent a lot of time with him, in rehab centers and hospitals, watching the ways he was treated and trying to help. One of the comforts now offered to the sick and dying are dogs. Specially trained and certified animals are a part of our most modern medical facilities. The pleasure they brought my father, who, towards the end, could enjoy very little, was a great comfort to both him - and therefor to me. But the "comfort dogs" only came once a week at most, and only for very short visits. So between tests, procedures, meals, and whatever else took up my father's last days, I would hunt for videos of dogs on YouTube. I thought of these home movie snippets as comfort dog prosthesis. When I was growing up, I'm sure he told me about the dog he had as a boy, but it was only as he lay dying that he admitted that he had been needlessly hard on the dog, taking his own boyhood unhappiness out on the animal, seventy some odd years later, he suffered terrible guilt over hurting that dog. As my father's illness progressed his appetites shrank, for drink, for food, for books. The very last thing I can remember him telling me that he wanted, was how much wanted to have a dog again. Not long after the old man died we got a puppy. Until very recently, the vast majority of dogs throughout human history were working animals, expect to earn their keep doing skilled physical labor as shepherds, rat catchers, or hunters. The comfort my dog has given me is a profound and valuable for of emotional labor, it is a deep animal connection that machines will ever be able to reproduce. But something I can imagine machines doing, relatively soon, is facilitating the emotional labor of animals.

As I've been writing about the future, I have found myself especially focused on the concrete fact of "Artificial Labor" as opposed to the more nebulous and contested "Artificial Intelligence" - machines may never think, but no one can quibble about the work they do. While some thinkers have divide Machine Ages by the quality of our machines (hand made/machine made) or by the power source (steam, internal combustion, atomic), but according to an essay by the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci "there’s only been one-and-a-three-quarters of a machine age—we are close to concluding the second one—we are moving into the third one. And there probably is no fourth one." Tufekci's pessimism is due to the fact that she divides machine ages by the kinds of labor we are asking machines to perform, and how badly we've adjusted to new forms of automation in the past. First we used them for physical labor, then for mental labor, and soon the third age will begin, when we begin to rely on them for emotional labor.
Women at work tabulating during World War II (Shorpy) via The Atlantic

Tufekci's First Machine Age would have begun at the end of the middle ages, when we first began using waterwheels and other mechanisms to replace the physical labor of humans and animals. That First Age really picked up speed during the late 18th century with the First Industrial Revolution, and has never really slackened. Tufekci points to the breakdown of traditional communities and the terrible conditions for workers in those early industrial cities. More recently Tufekci's Second Age began, when machines began to replace mental drudgery. It wasn't that long ago that computing power was still measured in "kilo-girls.' It was less than a century ago that "computers" referred to rooms full of young women doing the drudge work of math; "computer" was still a job during WWII, not yet a thing. It is only a matter of time until we have to remind ourselves that "lawyer" was once a job. Tufekci, I suppose, thinks that's a bad thing.

Tufekci believes a Fourth Machine Age (Spiritual?) is unlikely given how bad our historical track record has been when it comes to managing the social and economic disruptions caused by the first two ages of automation. While I appreciate her pessimism, the point of the 2H2K project is to imagine who we can make life during the Second Age the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time. If it has begun at all, the age of the emotional automation is still in the waterwheel stage, we have time to adjust. Imagining plausible ways to adjust is key.

We have only just begun to automate emotional labor. While I found Spike Jonze's disembodied love affair in Her very convincing - perhaps because it was a short-lived platonic affair, and am sure that that form of emotional automation is not only possible, but fast approaching - the more physical relationship required to care for a dementia patient, like Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank, is still a very long way off.

The emotional labor or caring for the elderly, even those who's awareness is compromised by Alzheimer's or dementia profoundly complicated. While my father's awareness was only compromised by the exhaustion of long illness, and I am an adult who knew my him intimately for decades, and had the help of well trained professions, at times I still had a very hard time figuring out what he needed. But the emotional labor of caring for the elderly is even more difficult than making sure the elderly patient gets what they need, it is also a matter of understanding how to reassure those who love them and are responsible for them.  Frank's fictional robot companion displayed an extremely complex combination of skilled physical, mental, and emotional labor. I suspect that we are more than a century away from synthesizing that level of emotional wherewithal. (More about this in a future post.) Which brings us back to the emotional labor of artificial animals. 
Robot & Frank (2012)

Because they are the product of artificial selection - or domestication - dogs are sometimes referred to as "artificial animals." In his book Dog Sense the animal behaviorist, John Bradshaw, reports that domestication has altered dogs "more than any other species." He argues that the most important change, "for both them and us, is their ability to to bond with us and understand us, to an extent that no other animal can match." So it is discouraging (and surprising) to read, that "after many millennia in which the dog has been man's closest animal companion, cats are taking over as the most popular pet in many countries, including the United States." Bradshaw suspects that part of the reason dog ownership is on the decline, are our impossible expectations. "Until just over a hundred years ago, most dogs worked for their living":
Each of the breeds or types had become well suited, over thousands of years and a corresponding number of generations, to the task for which they were bred. first and foremost dogs were tools. 
Bradshaw observes that "none of the breeds that are most popular as family pets have been specifically and exclusively designed as such." Because of this, collies, for instance, that have been bred to herd sheep, have to be carefully disciplined not to heard children and chase bicycles. "In the past, when dogs' functions were mostly rural, it was accepted that they were intrinsically messy and needed to be managed on their own terms. Today, by contrast many pet dogs live in circumscribed, urban environments and are expected to be simultaneously better behaved than the average human child and as self-reliant as adults."
Shiba-chan, via engadget
Dogs may be tools, but they are tools we have used intimately for millennia. We probably began domesticating pigs nine thousand years ago, horses about six thousand. Bradshaw places the origins of dog domestication as early as twenty thousand years ago. That pushes the origins of our relationship with dogs deep into our pre-agricultural past. They aren't just our long-time companions - they are our deep-time companions. The emotional work of dogs has always been inseparable from the physical and mental labor we have used them for. The reason there are only a few hundred thousand wolves let and millions of dogs, is that dogs have learned to bond with, and ingratiate themselves with humans - we love each other. By the time dogs accompanied us as we left the Old World and first began moving int the Americas, they had been our companions for thousands of years already. Dogs are our evolutionary partners, they have shape us just as we have shaped them. 

My personal experience with dogs, both recent, but also life long, leads me to believe that they will only be replaced by robots when we have become robots ourselves - and even then, maybe not. I am sure that companies like Sony will continue producing robotic pets, but I think they are likely to be met the same consumer disinterest as Aibo. As for the popularity of cat and dog videos on YouTube - those are stop gaps, "prosthetic pets" - replacements for those who can't, for whatever reasons, have pets, are away from their pets, or have a cat, and need to see animals doing something more than scratching the furniture and glaring dumbly. But it was Bradshaw's observation, that dog ownership is on the wane, that pushed me to imagine what the future of dogs will be. 
Aibo (2005)

Bradshaw's book begins with the story of Ginger, his grandfather's cairn terrier. He tells the story of how the little dog had the run of his grandfather's  early twentieth century Bradford - a proper industrial city:
Ginger was a genuine Yorkshire “character,” and the family had a fund of stories about him, but what amazed me the most was the freedom he had been given, even though he lived within sight of the city center. Every lunch time, when my grandfather was at work, Ginger was allowed to take himself for a walk around the neighborhood. Apparently he had a routine. First he would cross the road into Lister Park, where he would sniff lampposts, interact with other dogs, and, in summer, try to persuade the occupants of the park benches to part with one of their sandwiches. Then he would cross the tram tracks on Manningham Lane and amble to the rear of the fish and chip shop, where a scratch at the back door would usually elicit a handful of scraps of batter and some misshapen chips. Then he usually headed straight for home, which involved crossing a busy junction. Here, according to family legend, there was usually a policeman, directing the lunchtime traffic, who would solemnly stop the cars to allow Ginger safe passage across.
I have known dogs with that level of independence - I even owned one for a time - but that is because I experienced something exceedingly rare for an American at the end of the twentieth century: I lived at the dead end of a dirt road, with no running water and few, but friendly, and relatively distant, neighbors. (I was living miles from the nearest town with a bunch of back-to-the-landers.) Even so, the reason the dogs on that road enjoyed so much independence, was because there was no through traffic to worry about - there was hardly any car traffic at all. An "industrial city", in the UK, before WWI, and possibly even up to WWII, would have had nowhere near as much high speed traffic that even the smallest US town has today. But even so, when I first read about Ginger, I was house-training a puppy in Manhattan.
Russian Cybernetic Dog (1988c)

Without rehearsing all the entire process of house training a puppy in SoHo, let me say that I, and that the city around me, were both more prepared than I expected. I was prepared in that I had been instantly supplied by a Pet Industrial Complex that had grown up in the thirty years since I had last "paper trained" a puppy. I had poop bags, pee pads, puppy food, crate training equipment, Puppies for Dummies, puppy socialization classes (not a joke), and an infinite opportunity for Google searches to help me do the job. All of which I vaguely knew existed, but had no idea how much I would need.

I was also unprepared for the alternate New York - the New York you discover when you get a puppy. Not just the New York of dog friendly bars and restaurants, of dog parks, and surprisingly accommodating neighbors. (I met more of my neighbors in the first month of owning the puppy than in the previous twenty years.) But I was also surprised by the fact that the famously unflappable New Yorkers - who I have known in all their truly-unflappable glory for almost twenty years - disappeared and were replaced by New Yorkers who lose their shit in the presence of a five pound puppy; not just little girls, picture burly sweaty tattooed deliver men, screaming in GLEE. New Yorkers have a lot of dogs, but what became clear to me very quickly is that so many of them don't, but wish they could. I get stopped all the time by people who want to tell me how much they wish they could have a dog.

John Bradshaw is right, my dog is expected to be better behaved than all my previous dogs. No matter how dog friendly New York is today, it is a crowded dangerous city, if she were to bolt into traffic or bite child, that would it. Because of that, I spent a lot of time training my dog, and took it very seriously. I am not a natural disciplinarian, especially with myself, and frankly the dog's behavior often reflects that, but I did my best, which is far more than most New Yorkers with 9-5 jobs could possibly do. I also could not have done it alone. Because both my fiancee and I both work for ourselves, we've had the time to dedicate to caring for the animal. That's a luxury most other New Yorkers couldn't afford. especially those who live alone. Rather than imagine a more perfect dog of the future, I found myself trying to imagine future more like Ginger's; a better future for dogs.
my Studio Mate, Frances Bacon, photographed last winter for my neighbors in Industry City, Modko design

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