Future Pets

This episode is sponsored by Brilliant
This year we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of mankind walking on the moon, less than
a decade after Gagarin became the first to orbit Earth. The first human anyway, it was a dog who made
the first orbit. This episode comes out on April 11, which
is National Pet Day, so I thought it would be appropriate to take a look both at how
our furry friends have helped us on the road to technology and what might be in store for
them in the future. Animals, particularly our pets, played quite
a large role in humanity’s rise, though often rather tragically as was the case for
Laika, a stray dog found wandering the streets of Moscow who ended up being the first to
orbit our Pale Blue Dot, though she did not survive the trip. It’s a sad reality that many critters have
been sacrificed to scientific development, and while their loss has benefited humanity
quite a lot, they are rarely acknowledged for that contribution. The silver lining is that many of our pets
have enjoyed far happier and longer lives as a result of this knowledge too, and as
we’ll see today, might reap many more benefits down the road. Needless to say pets have brought a lot of
happiness to our lives, and research indicates they extend those lives, and help with stress
and anxiety too. Certainly they’ve been a source of inspiration
for many folks as well, indeed it’s a rare episode that gets written on this channel
without my cat Prospero making an appearance at my desk and influencing my writing. However, back in the days of yore, they were
much more directly involved in our day to day survival. Indeed while fire, spears, bows, and arrows
often get touted as our big first technologies, dogs deserve inclusion on that list, joining
us prior to agriculture and being invaluable as pack animals, hunting aids, and nighttime
sentries against predators. Cats joined us soon thereafter and began protecting
our stored crops from vermin and us from a lot of the illnesses transmitted that way. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say
that our pets have been a huge influence on our civilization, and indeed the development
of animal domestication has a pretty good paw on being one of the late-era Filters we
have discussed as a factor in the Fermi Paradox, without which advanced technology might not
develop on other worlds. I think most would acknowledge pets' importance
in the past, when they were primarily working animals, but their role in the future is a
bit more debatable, as we don’t really need them anymore for specific tasks like guarding
our herds or grain stores. Even jobs like seeing eye-dogs or sniffing
out leads for law enforcement will presumably be replaced by task-built machines in the
future. Though as we’ll see today, there are many
ways they might continue in such roles or find new ones. However some of those domesticated animals
we don’t primarily keep as pets may soon be replaced by synthetic meat. While I suspect they won’t object, the pig
and the cow might not find much place for themselves in such a world. This raises the very interesting question
of exactly what a pet is and what we mean by that concept. I’ve heard folks say that cats and dogs
weren’t our pets in the past because they were working for their living, but that strikes
me as creating a false dichotomy and a bad definition. Our ancestors lived on the margins of survival,
and expected their young and elderly to work, and also their furry friends. It hardly diminishes the relationship because
it was pragmatic. Nor does it imply my relationships with my
cats, a necessity for keeping rodents away in a rural area like mine, is somehow how
less affectionate. My friends on the force who have K9 partners
dote on those dogs, and my friends who use a horse to get around their farms where walking
and driving isn’t always ideal certainly love those horses. Many of ancestors praised or outright worshipped
animals in large part because of their utility and aid in survival. The child or grandparent who helps the family
with chores and support is typically lauded for such contribution, not viewed as a mere
useful tool. So clearly being useful and earning your keep
does not disqualify an animal from being a pet, nor is a lack of a job likely to see
such critters disappear from our households. There was a noticeable dip in horse ownership
between a century ago, when there were 20 million horses in the United States, and 60
years ago, when it dropped to a mere 4.5 million as every house got a car and every farm a
tractor. But there are 9 million horses today, and
that growth is even more significant when you consider that it's concentrated in rural
areas where owning a horse is still practical, while much of our population growth during
that time has been in urban areas where you can't keep a horse. Obviously, lots of folks just love horses. So what is a pet? We’ve often joked, half-seriously, that
if we ever develop a super-intelligent machine that was friendly or benevolent toward humans
we might end up as pets ourselves, kept around primarily for entertainment. Of course an AI might keep more traditional
pets too, something we don’t see too much in fiction, with the very noteworthy exception
of Spot, Commander Data’s pet cat in Star Trek, interestingly one of only two main characters
who seem to keep a pet in that franchise, the other being Porthos, Captain Archer’s
beagle in Star Trek: Enterprise. Undoubtedly, this is mostly because animals
can be a bit of pain to work with on a set and the writers found human-pet interactions
a bit mundane, what with a galaxy of M-class planets to explore. But we do see pets in science fiction often
enough, they just tend to either be alien – like the tribbles from Star Trek, or robots
themselves, and it’s certainly plausible we might see rather exotic, maybe even alien,
pets in the future along with lower-level AI in that role. Technically a robot couldn’t be a pet, using
the strict definition I found in my dictionary, “a tamed or domesticated animal”, but
I suspect we need not argue the point, here of all places, where definitions often need
to be broadened or altered in discussion of the future. The relatively simple Tamagotchi electronic
pet device has sold over 80 million units worldwide and I doubt that any avid Tamagotchi
owner would take kindly to you if you said that their Tamagotchi wasn’t a pet. Likewise, a tamed and domesticated animal
may have been the only way to have a pet in the past, but a critter genetically engineered
from scratch that required no taming would obviously break that definition but be no
less of a pet than one tamed from the wild. So the first thing likely to change in the
future is our antiquated dictionary definition of what a pet is. And of course you won’t get a universal
definition, there are after all such things as pet rocks and plenty of folks who talk
to plants and tend them and invest emotion into them. We might snicker at that but most of us do
talk to our pets, I do, and I am well aware that they do not understand me, I’m not
even sure if my cats know what their names are or what a name is. We do obviously communicate, but I’m as
guilty as the next person of anthropomorphizing them. Though I would argue that while a cat or dog,
or for that matter a human infant, has neither the software or hardware for carrying on an
abstract adult conversation, it is a bit different than examples of pet rocks, plants, teddy
bears, or those early electronic pets you could get for your keychain or desktop. Of course traditional pets include goldfish
or even ant farms, and I daresay neither of those communicate much more than a houseplant
or rock. All of these shortcomings suggest some obvious
ways we might improve our pets, or our interactions with them. For example, we might make them better able
to communicate. There’s a Simpson’s episode where Homer’s
brother invents a baby translator, and we’ve seen those for dogs or dolphins in fiction
too. You’re not making them smarter, just creating
a device that more accurately and easily translates what they’re communicating already. Such a device would be very handy for talking
back at them, so that we could explain to the furry devils that you’d appreciate them
wiping their dirty paws off before tracking mud into the house. Though considering the difficulty getting
young children to do this, in spite of having language skills, I wouldn’t be too optimistic
on that front. Animals in general have even worse short term
memories and attention spans than toddlers. So you might want to make them smarter. Needless to say this has a host of concerns
attached to it, and many of us actually find our pets being rather short of wits, memory,
and vocabulary a pleasant feature, as your cat or dog does not care if you slouch around
the house in wrinkled pajamas and get behind in your household chores, and will not complain
or gossip about it to others, with the noticeable exception of parrots. This would bring up an interesting threat
to privacy. Few people worry about their cat or dog hanging
out in their bedroom or bathroom while they dress, and if we think about it at all, it’s
usually to wonder what the critter thinks about us taking our fur off and putting it
back on again. We rarely worry that our furry friends will
gossip about our choice of underwear, or tweet about our physique. That’s only one reason why you might not
want your pets much smarter. We also have to keep in mind that part of
that relationship is the comfort of their dependence on us, they need us, which can
feel good, and are fairly easy to tend to. We also don’t feel threatened by them, and
that’s amusing in a way since our two primary pets, cats and dogs, are out of a pair of
apex predator lines. They are pretty homicidal little monsters
and might be a lot less cute if they were smarter. We’ve discussed uplifting before on the
channel, where one provides technological, physiological, or neurological improvements
to a species to bring them up to human-parallel levels, usually in regard to alien life forms
we might find, or chimps or dolphins, but it works for pets too. In Rick & Morty, indeed in the first episode
I saw of that series, which resulted in me binge-watching the show till the sun rose,
we get an example of them uplifting the family dog, “Snuffles”. When asked to make the dog smarter, Rick claims
that the whole point of having a dog is that you can feel superior to it. In that episode, the dog figures out how to
turn up the power on the helmet enhancing his intelligence, develops a distinct resentment
of the way it was treated, then uplifts all the other dogs, who promptly take over the
world and keep humans as slaves. Make our pets a bit smarter, and it might
be fine and even beneficial, fully uplift them and even assuming they don’t try to
murder us, we would presumably need to start granting them rights, like ownership and voting. But I’m not sure an uplifted cat would make
an ideal congressman or governor. You’d also presumably need to consider some
physiological changes too, though while a cat doesn’t have enough space for a human-sized
brain, cybernetic uplifting might prove compact enough to get around this. Pets also in general live much shorter lives
than us and breed a lot faster than us. Needless to say, extending our pets lives
is the type of genetic tinkering I’m sure we’ll see and sooner than later. As we discussed in the Science of Aging, most
of the techniques for extending our lives on the table will work just as well on other
mammals. Life-extension methods are likely to be expensive
only in the early days, and will get cheaper after they've been around for a while and
the original patents expire. Indeed, since the regulatory barriers are
lower, it’s quite probable we’ll have life extension medications and techniques
for animals before we have them for people, particularly for lab rats. We’re already into cloning our pets, so
this is merely a logical extension of that. A lot of us have gone through many pets over
the decades as we outlive them. Often generations of the same family pet. We might run around as a kid with a dog and
go to our final rest with its many-times great-grandchild at our side when finally the role is reversed
and they outlive us. Many folks do worry about their pets and take
measures to make sure a friend or family member will adopt them later, and certainly someone
who is taking the effort to extend their pets lifetime is likely to make sure they are inherited
along with other priceless heirlooms. This, incidentally, is another pathway for
future pets, albeit less organic ones. Thinking on fictional examples of pets, one
that often comes to mind is the witch’s cat or wizard’s familiar, smarter than normal
animals, often longer-lived, and with whom there is some extended bond for communication,
perhaps even enabling their person to see out their eyes or hear with their ears. An example of where fantasy might have nailed
the future on the head better than science fiction. I can easily imagine people having pets augmented
like this, technologically rather than magically of course, maintaining that bond with the
pet for many decades or even centuries. However, it makes me think of another common
trope of fantasy, intelligent magical items, heroes with swords or staffs or so on that
are conscious and can talk to them. It’s quite likely humanity will hesitate
to ever create a human level artificial intelligence, but we might routinely create ones on a level
with our pets or even close to, but not quite, human. In early science fiction we often saw humanoid
robots, whereas we’ve tended to develop them rather inhuman in form instead. Isaac Asimov, the grandfather of robotics,
once justified his humanoid robot prediction by saying that since high-level intelligences
would be very expensive to make compared to the basic tools they might use, it made more
sense to make a human-shaped robot who could operate all our tools than make each tool
itself intelligent. Thus far, that’s often not proven to be
so. Computers and software are hardly cheap but
the tools they might use often aren't either, and so we are more likely to make an automated
tractor than a robot to run a regular one. Since a certain amount of intelligence and
versatility would be handy, both for our interaction with it and for its ability to do its job,
and I’d not be surprised if we saw almost every complex device in the future have a
certain amount of intelligence. It is quite likely we’d see intelligent
houses, able to interact with you and with other stupider devices around the home, and
also intelligent vehicles, where safety, and a perception of safety, will require advanced
capabilities. In both cases people are likely to want something
they can actually chat with too. But we’re unlikely to need or want something
fully human in intelligence, and as we get into other devices something on the pet level
might be preferable. I don’t really need a super-smart lawnmower
but some basic intelligence there might be handy and watching the thing race around the
lawn chasing squirrels or playing with your dog or kid might be something folks would
like, assuming it did not attempt to actually mow them. Regardless, if you have something like a smart
car that is durable and self-repairing, able to drive itself and either see to its own
repairs or report them and get permission to drive to the mechanic, it would almost
inevitably be viewed as a cherished pet. That self-repair aspect though highlights
the increasingly blurry line between the mechanical and the organic that we’ll probably see
in our devices, ourselves, and our pets in the future. Long before the lawnmower, we did tend to
use goats for trimming the lawn, and it’s entirely possible that instead of a smart
lawnmower we might just get tinkered and augmented goats in that role. Indeed as we’ve discussed with artificial
intelligence, one of the three main pathways for getting AI is to emulate an existing human
mind rather than trying to program every line of code, or create an empty, naive learning
machine that would need a lot of monitoring and guidance. This is hardly limited to human minds and
as with life extension technology, early work of this sort is likely to use animals not
humans anyway. Personally I think it would be rather morbid
and gross to harvest a goat brain and wire it into a lawnmower, but a digitally emulated
goat mind tweaked and loaded into one might do rather well and be happy at that. In the same way, we’ve occasionally suggested
the artificial intelligence running a spaceship might be modeled on the mind of a whale or
dolphin. As we get better with genetic engineering,
cybernetics, nanotech, and self-repairing machines, that whole biological versus mechanical
concept gets far more blurry. You might make a smarter dog or sentient car,
and they might help babysit your kids. You might give your kid a teddy bear who is
their boon companion their whole life, watching them, teaching them, protecting them, and
might be passed on to their own children in turn one day, as we often do even now with
cherished toys. The car that always drove you to school every
morning, the cat who taught you to read and maybe taught your grandfather too, the teddy-bear
with built-in gatling guns that made sure the monster under your bed was afraid to show
its face, and goat-mower who always tagged along for your evening walks after dinner. The ethics of such things is maybe a bit dubious,
but also not new. Many ethical challenges raised about technology
are actually just minor variants of age old-ones, and while some might object to tinkering with
a goat to make it a more useful machine, they’re several thousands years late to the party
on that matter. Our techniques have obviously improved, but
our ancestors very definitely, and very intentionally, messed with the flora and fauna around them
to be more useful. If you’re ever in doubt about that, just
take picture a poodle and a wolf side-by-side, or look up the history of a lot of primary
food crops. Jump in a time machine with a bag of carrots
and folks will ask you why they are orange. Whether or not all this tinkering is ethical,
and that certainly should be considered on a case by case basis, it’s also not a new
moral dilemma. Of course, our ancestors usually didn’t
worry about the morality of it much, or at least didn’t record such debates, perhaps
because the process tended to be very slow and incremental. There are many more options on the table for
pets once we consider using high-tech modification. Fiction has shown us a lot of alien pets,
one of my favorites being the Fire Lizards of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern
series, small fire-breathing critters of modest intelligence and telepathy who are later engineered
into full blown dragons. Such options are on the table for us, installing
technological telepathy or even creating a genetic or cybernetic hybrid able to genuinely
breathe fire, though I don’t know if you'd want something like that living in your house,
with its valuable and flammable objects and persons. Any number of mythological critters might
be spawned from labs. Thinking back on the virtual and electronic
pets that we mentioned earlier, you might have purely digital companions who live in
the virtual landscapes and worlds that are likely to accumulate on our future computer
networks, see the Virtual Worlds episode from a few months back for details. It is easy to imagine that folks might have
a virtual castle somewhere with entirely virtual pets, who hardly need to worry about normal
biological limitations, and who can presumably be every bit as real and conscious as us or
our cats. You could ride around on your virtual dragon
because physics and aerodynamics and economic considerations of feeding it will be of no
concern. Indeed, you might tend to take your flesh-and-blood
pets with you into these virtual worlds. Your dog or cat might enjoy running around
virtual worlds as much as you do and if you transition to a post-biological existence
in a digital world, you bring them with you, like some Egyptian pharaoh of yore having
their pets and household mummified for the post-mortal world, but presumably more effectively. In previous episodes, we’ve talked about
how if generation ships or space habitats get crowded on long voyages, we might see
folks go on ice or upload their mind to digital layers of the ship to make room for new people. It's presumably even easier to simulate a
landscape that Rover will enjoy. As we often say here, the digital versus biological
concern is often presented as the distinguishing characteristic of what sort of entity or person
we’re discussing, but is really just the substrate they’re on, hardly irrelevant
but not really any more important as a trait than if the house they live in is made of
wood, brick, or stone. The same presumably applies to pets, maybe
more so since they won’t be prone to existential worries and dread, so I suspect we’ll see
them tag along with us to every new world and experience we visit or create, be it around
distant stars or digital landscapes. All those billions and billions of worlds
we’ll one day forge, we will share with them, and all the other critters we evolved
alongside or may one day make. In that regard, I’d say the future looks
pretty bright for our furry friends, and the not so furry ones too. In the meantime, since this is National Pet
Day, make sure to give your friend a good headrub and scratch on the ears. Much of what we discussed today focused on
cognition and learning for our pets, and of course learning is our main goal here too. One of best approaches to that is to do it
at your own pace but to do it every day, and I always do some sort of puzzle along with
my morning coffee to get the brain warmed up for the day. One of my favorites for these is the Daily
Problems from Brilliant. Every day, they publish several problems that
provide a quick and fascinating view into math, logic, science, engineering, or computer
science. Some of the more recent ones included piloting
and navigating a solar sail spaceship, cutting a Mobius Strip in half, and escaping from
a room by outwitting the guards. And if you like a problem and want to learn
more, there’s a course quiz that explores it in greater detail. If you are confused and need more guidance,
there’s a community of thousands of learners discussing the problems and writing solutions. Daily problems are thought provoking challenges
that will lead you from curiosity to mastery one day at a time. Learning should be fun, that’s something
we obviously believe in here at SFIA, and so does Brilliant. If you want to learn more of the math and
science shaping our world, go to brilliant.org/IsaacArthur and sign up for free. And also, the first 200 people that go to
that link will get 20% off the annual Premium subscription. So we talked today about pets and possibly
blurry lines between intelligent machines and tools and those pets, and next week we’ll
be looking at a classic example of that in science fiction, power suits that would augment
the body and likely have sophisticated computers on board too. But we’ll also be looking at giant robots
people might pilot into war, often known as mecha, and find out what the first rule of
warfare is, in Giant Robots & Power Suits. The week after that, we’ll head back to
the Earth 2.0 series to conclude our main arc of the series, by examining Matrioshka
Worlds, many layered planets that let you vastly increase the living area of a planet,
and how Earth itself is likely to become such a world one day. For alerts when those and other episodes come
out, make sure to subscribe to the channel and hit the notifications bell. And if you enjoyed this episode, hit the like
button and share it with others. Until next time, thanks for watching, and
have a Great Week!

47 thoughts on “Future Pets

  1. I love the idea of a goat mind in the mower the only glitch would be trying to ram into you if you bend over ??

  2. Here's something I can see happening: An entire industry of genetically modified animals, any animal, modified so that they remain docile, playful, and easily trained. Imagine having a Siberian Tiger, a Polar Bear, or a Gorilla and they're completely harmless. And if something is endangered, like a Panda, purchasing a modified/cloned pet version could be seen as a conservation effort.

    Of course, I also see protesters going "Let the Wildlife Stay Wild!"

  3. a 100lb genetically modified cyborg cat/dog/AI hybrid? yes plz ; jas im going to go preserve the dna from my cat & dog to use as templates for my future resurrected furry family

  4. Nuro dog from Starship troopers perhaps?

    As for the cat making congressman well based on the current system i think we could do much worse.

  5. Lauded sounds like loathed. I had to replay it a few times, to make sure I don't get it (too) wrong. I suggest using praised instead.

  6. Adding intelligence to make a smart car that is durable, self-repairing, able to drive itself….hasn't Christine taught us this is a bad idea?

  7. humans breed dogs with life long medical difficulties. based on this sad situation, I don't think goat brains in lawn mowers will be considered unethical. and an uplifted cat politician? campaign slogan: "Yes, we kan! we just not ker"

  8. Don't know if I should be mad that YouTube took it upon themselves to stop notifying me on Isaac Arthur videos or happy my dog and I have hours of new (new to me) videos to watch.

  9. mmh. Pets. I'd certainly be inclined to have a pet such as a panther or tiger if it wasn't so absurdly dangerous.
    Not that a large dog isn't equally dangerous in theory, but in practice… Yeah, that's not quite the same thing.
    On the other hand, people that for one reason or another DO have large cats as pets will note that aside from being vastly more capable of injuring you, their behaviour is often surprisingly similar to their smaller relatives…
    A cat is a cat, to a large extent, it seems…

    Various kinds of robot pets would also be interesting, depending on complexity…
    Though I tend to prefer my pets, as with many things in my life, to be quite… Cuddly, so likely more towards a robotic adaptation of a stuffed toy than something really mechanical looking…

  10. 15:33 Asimov also died before the massive revolution in processing speed during the mid to late 90s and the dot-com bubble.

  11. If you take a robot that is "feral" running AI that is not compatible with human interaction, then alter its programming to be compatible with human interaction, that would be a form of domestication, so tada, dictionary approved synthetic pets!

  12. In the future humans will be geneticly modified to be immune to feline fecal brain parasites, and cat ownership will sharply decline.

  13. Many pet fish, especially larger ones, exhibit distinct personalities. Flowerhorns and pufferfish are especially popular for their playfulness. Broadening your options, cuttlefish are relatively simple to care for and at least as smart as your dog.

  14. "But I'm not sure an uplifted cat would make an ideal congressman or governor."
    I dunno Isaac, have you seen some of the current ones? I don't think a cat could do any worse.

    I still say there's money to be made with the dino-chicken project if they can ever do it consistently and have the embryos survive. Who wouldn't want to own a tiny dinosaur-looking thing? Yeah, it's technically a chicken, but it's a really cool looking chicken.

  15. Cats do seem to be able to recognize their names, they just don't care that they're being called: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40616-4

  16. When it comes to that point about goldfish, people who think fish "don't do anything" generally haven't actually had fish as pets. Goldfish perhaps aren't the best example, but large cichlids like Oscars, and predatory reef fish like groupers and moray eels are quite personable by fish standards, and studies of fish behavior show a degree of behavioral richness in some species comparable to higher vertebrates. More recently, a species of cleaner wrasse was able to pass the so called "mirror test"

  17. Holy shit, that "Cradle of the Galaxy" Stellaris track was playing in my game at the exact same time and 1 second ahead of the video, that tripped me out so hard man I thought I was double hearing!

  18. Daww…lots of video of cute pets! Not your average SFIA video!

    I like the idea of your car asking for permission to drive itself to the mechanic!

  19. I like the idea of a bog that mind is downloading everytime it dies. Over hunders of yaers the same dog liveing and serveing the same family.

  20. short of wits? we will make great pets.
    or we already do. can't really say.
    be a lamb, and pass me that butter.

  21. Animals have a great sense of body language.. You can literally train you dog to do whatever using non verbal communication.. they’re much better at interpreting your body language than you’d expect. I’m not a cat person but I’ve had many dogs that I never needed to speak to in order to communicate with them. Dogs have many facial expressions.. it’s comparable to a human.

    Also if you want an example of why it’s morally questionable to mess around with pet DNA just look at the French bulldog.. its snout is too shallow so it can’t breathe properly, it’s legs are too short so it can’t even walk and people still cut the tail off it so it’s balance is all outta whack.

  22. Well our dog surely knows his name.
    Not only that the damned beast loves to chase around our cat, and learned all the words that we might use when we see it. So cat, the cats name, kitten, kitty and a bunch of others. But it might be just a particularly clever dog, it also taught to open door by itself…
    …with all the upsides and downsides of that- so if there is no lock on a door, its not going to keep him out.

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