Thursday, August 21, 2014

2H2K - July 2050 - “Chuck Close”

iAroki walking Benji, the family dog (1977)

Chuck Close was a small, compact, terrier-mutt with a shaggy coat of coarse dark grey hair and a slight under bite. Although she herself had never had the courage to kill one, Chuck was the descendant of working animals, British rat-catchers. Her line had arrived in the colonies in the early 1700s in the form of  pregnant bitch named Molly. Three hundred years later, none of Molly’s brood remained on the mainland, but a few dozen still dotted Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Like Molly, Chuck had a long muscled torso, a six inch inseam, and carried herself with the characteristic jaunty confidence of a small dog that had no idea she was small.

Chuck's handleR was a late-model quadruped. The small light-weight chassis wasn’t too different than early production models that had made gardneRs and porteRs consumer fads over two decades before. The body plan was almost identical - even down to a third set of dexterous manipulator limbs once used to pull weeds and wrap packages. The handleR however used these smaller limbs to disentangle Chuck's lead, pick up after her, throw balls, and on several occasions, reach into Chuck’s mouth to pull fragments of chicken bone and other such choking hazards out - something a gardeneR would never have the dexterity to do, and Chuck feared and hated out of all proportion - watching her periphery anytime she ate for the sudden darting of those tiny plastic hands.

Also unlike those original gardenechassis, many of which were still in use in gardens and small farms around the country, the handleRs had modern power cells, state of the art POVs, and other material improvements like gel activators that gave Chuck's handleR an enormous endurance and stealthy gate compared to the easily drained and famously noisy gardneRs.

The most striking difference between the gardneRs of the twenties and Chuck’s handleR was the addition of a head - essentially a seventh manipulator, but one with expressive dog-like ears. The handleR also had a tail. The jury was still out on whether or not these additions were necessary - most critics felt that they were an affectations, made for the benefit of humans, but meaningless to dogs. The truth was that while Chuck didn't think of them as ears and a tail, she had learned to watch those features with care; less as organs of expression, and more as early warnings that she might be in danger of being disciplined.

Chuck was old enough that discipline was no longer frequent. She had a good understanding of what was and wasn’t allowed - which did not mean she always hewed to the rules. For the opportunity to chase the cats around the house, she would still risk squirt-gun shots of water, or even blared noise and, the most dreaded, citronella mistings.

But the greatest difference between the handleR and its domestic predecessors was invisible: it was the sophistication of the AL package it carried. Identifying and pulling weeds turned out to be a far simpler form of Artificial Labor than interacting with domesticated canines. Surprisingly, interacting with dogs turned out to be much thornier problem to solve than driving cars, building houses, or even interacting socially with humans. For all of Chuck's fear of being disciplined, most of the actions the handletook to shape the dog's behavior when unnoticed by the animal. The majority of corrections were tiny hesitations, signaling behavior that Chuck imitated, or was deflected by without fear, or even awareness. And the vast majority of what the handlewas tasked with doing involved rewards and reinforcing good behavior. Still, no mater how many bits of dehydrated chick those little arms handed Chuck, the dog could not forgive the wrenching grasps down her throat.

When the Chuck had gone for her first walks with the handleR a few years before, the two had cause a commotion. Then, people had stopped to stare, to laugh, to take pictures. Chuck, who had been a particularly tiny puppy, was part of the spectacle - but the real novelty had been the sight of her being lead by the handleR. Chuck, still easily scared had sheltered between the softly creaking mechanical legs of the handlewhile cooing strangers tried to comfort her.  

Something that Chuck could not have known, was that there had been waves of attempts to sell AL pets over the past half century, the MoMA had even mounted an exhibition with hundreds of different servotecure cats, dogs, birds, and mice, as well as three, totally unrelated, models of mechanical mongoose. The show pulled examples going all the way back to the 1970s, representing a spectrum from the earliest clunky hard plastic scif things, to the most recent hyper-realistic animatronics. The fuss that had spooked Chuck as a puppy had been because her handleR was mistaken for prank; an pet gardeneR on a walk with dog - an absurdity akin to having seen a horse pulling a Model T Ford a hundred years earlier. It was an understandable misunderstanding however, because there had been a craze from POV snippets of dogs and cats interacting (usually with fear and horror) with their AL counterparts, especially gardeneR.

But compared to Chuck's handleR, the early AL pets had been horribly clumsy and slow - hardly more sophisticated than wind-up toys. But every five years or so seemed to bring new wave of the things. Parents and collectors spent surprisingly large amounts of money on some of the more successful models - from Aibo™  - a Japanese model that got a lot of attention around the turn of the century, to baRk™ & puR™that had nearly bankrupt Apple in the late teens.

But as hard as the toy and gadget makers tried, as much as the enthusiast insisted this time it would work, most people didn’t want AL dogs and cats. The handleRs were a very different story, never intended as toys, they were however inspired by them. The crave for POV snippets of terrified cats and dogs had sparked an interest among open-source servotects to retool the toy pets to be toys for pets. It wasn’t long before the project attracted attention of comparative psychologists, breeders, veterinarians, and others concerned with the well being of domestic animals.

Now, when the full grown Chuck moved through the neighborhood with her handleR, she no longer cause a stir. Not just because her neighbors are used to the duo, but handleRs were now on track to be the most single popular domestic AL ever, a craze that is was finally being acknowledged as a consumer trend.

Already programs for larger chassis are being developed for ranchers and specialized chassis programed for zoo keepers. There was an open source cat herdeR project that was attracting huge amounts of financial and technical support, but almost a three years in, no one held out much hope for its success.  

Chuck’s handleR, meanwhile, was a 3rd generation model. It stood almost three times as tall as she did - or at least it was that much bigger when it accompanied the animal outdoors. Inside, where it was never necessary to over-power another animal - only shadow Chuck, and sometimes warn her off from chasing the cats, or prevent her from eating something she shouldn't -  the handleR was the same size as the dog, and quite a bit lighter. But when Chuck went outdoors, the limbs of the handleR extended, allowing it to tower over Chuck.

Additionally, abdomen of the handleR, which was slim and taut when inside, was a celled membrane that was charged by a spigot near the back door before Chuck was allowed to leave for a walk. Holding five gallons of water, the handleR then had enough mass to hold Chuck back no matter how hard she pulled on her lead, or to forcefully pull her along, if need be. But the extra mass also made the handleR a formidable guard against even the neighborhood’s largest dogs.  

Today, like most days, Chuck had spent the day in a series of naps - moving throughout the day, relocating to sunny spots, never too far from her Old Man, who was asleep now. Most days, her Old Man would take her for a walk midday, and on those occasions they would leave the handleR at home. Chuck would walk off leash, greeting her public as the two of them made their daily loop out past the main drag, to the boardwalk, and back through the MIT quad.  

But right now, it was dark; early morning. Chuck had woken a number of times during the night, sitting up to watch the Old Man sleep, to watch the Old Woman's Cats moving around the room (while feigning sleep, so not to alert her enemies), to groom, and finally, getting up for a drink, to patrol the apartment and workshops below, and go for a walk. As soon as she left the Old Man’s side, her handleR - until then folded and cold, in a box-like configuration no bigger than a toaster, beneath the foot of the bed - roused, and quietly padding behind her.  

The two quadrupeds moved fell into a rhythm. The gate of the domestic machine echoing the domestic animal, a relic of an early programing work-around that incorporated cross training made the handleRs uncanny mimics. Both artificial animals had origins that date back to the Upper Paleolithic, the period from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. During that time humans had begun producing more complex and finely wrought compound tools, and Chuck's grey wolf ancestors had begun the process of self domestication, that humans would finish.

While the handleR was assemble in a small one-person shop, less than a mile from where Chuck lived, it was built from from over 10,000 components, manufactured in over 200 countries, and driven by code written by a quarter million individual volunteers speaking over two dozen languages. The machine was part of the most recent wave of tool development that had begun by strapping and gluing stone blades to wood handles. Chuck’s ancestors had insinuated themselves into the small nomadic troops, fattened up on food scraps and feces, and in return, providing their first human hosts with entertainment, warmth, and, when times got tough, a ready source of protein.  

Never before, in the preceding millennia, had dogs and tools interacted with the intimacy as Chuck did with her handleR. Which is not to say Chuck liked the thing, or even thought about it much. The handleR was, by now, a null presence; if Chuck thought of it at all, she pictured it as a series of discrete sensory images, heavily weighted to the olfactory, that, in toto, added up to something akin to Chair-Thing That Smells Old and Collects My Shit. But at one time the Chair-Thing had terrified her. The Old Man had introduced it into the apartment after a series of cat chases through the apartment and workshops (very successful ones as far as Chuck was concerned, she still dreamed about those Enemy Cat routs regularly, growling and twitching her legs with excitement when she did).  

After her initial terror had passed, thanks to an enormous amount of coaxing by her Old man, the handleR had become an object of fascination. For a time Chuck was convinced it was some kind of big cat, or small person - both objects of terror and awe that appeared regularly in her dreams. For a time Chuck decided it was more like an old person than a cat or little person - like a tiny Old Man. For one, it smelled like the Old Man.  

Chuck didn’t know it, but the ‘Old Man’ smell was due to advice the Old Woman had read on a user forum; a trick to help Chuck acclimate to the presence of her handleR. Chuck had watched, unable to comprehend the chirping back and forth between the Old Man and the Old Woman, as they laughed and argued about whether or not to dress the handler in the old man’s t-shirt and underpants (they settled on an old knit cap).

Chuck missed the sing song that the Old man had made with the Old Woman, sometimes from separate rooms, sometimes while touching one another, and often stopping to address Chuck, and touch her. Without the Old Woman the building was quiet; the Old Man subdued. His voice only lifting and fluttering with pleasure only rarely now; when the Young Woman visited, occasionally when he spoke to his bowl (Chuck thought of all flat things as possible surfaces for food, this included whole tables - Large Bowls - and and tablets - Small Bowls), and on their walks, when the two of them were alone - but even then, never with the same joy he had chirped and whispered along with the Old Woman.

Adding to Chuck’s initial confusion about what the handleR was, or was not, it spoke commands, encouragement, and admonishments in the voice of the old man; gave Chuck treats, played games with balls, and, when she made a move to chase one of the old woman’s cats, sprayed Chuck with water - all things the old man did. But whatever confusion she felt about the handleR, whatever fear or interest the dog had once had in the thing, had almost all faded to a disinterested awareness.

This morning was cool and smelled of sea air, but not humid; the day would be hot, there would be no dreaded rain (Chuck hated and feared the rain). The streets were quiet, the drunken clamor of the late night had settled, and the industrious rhythm of the day had not yet begun. Chuck was on a roam. She could already smell her first destination, even though it was still blocks away. And although the handleR was equipped with an electronic nose, it was nowhere near as sensitive as the dog’s, and mostly used to collect data for open source research projects. But even so the handleR had already predicted where the dog was headed and pinged the baker’s secRetary, and received permissions.  

Chuck had no awareness of these communications, all she knew was that that the bakery’s back door would be open, but for a screen door, that the baker would reward her single short bark with friendly pets and a small taste of beignet or croissant (both of which the handleR had permissions to allow).

Trotting along, keeping a wary eye out for rats (which she hated and terrified her), and sniffing the air, Chuck was, as far as she knew, the master of her universe. Her companion, in all things, her Chair-Thing handleR, padded softly at her flank. Always in the corner of Chuck’s eye, but never the focus of her attention. 

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