Lately, it seems, hardly a month goes by without either some viral video or paper-writing scientist suggesting that — contrary to what scientists and the media think we think — dogs feel emotions much like our own, or at least a doggy version of them.
If it’s not a video, like the one above – which is being described in the news media as a dog not just feeling remorse, but atoning for his misdeed — it’s a new scientific paper proclaiming, yes, dogs do feel … you name it … joy, fear, anger, guilt, pride, compassion, love, shame.
(If you didn’t already think dogs feel joy, you may not be the world’s most perceptive person.)
(Some, apparently, get so overwhelmed by it that they pass out.)
This month’s emotion? Jealousy.
Dr. Christine Harris, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego — after a study involving dogs, their owners, stuffed animals, jack-o’-lantern and children’s books – concluded that dogs showed a “primordial” form of jealousy, meaning, I guess, not as evolved, twisted, complex, nasty and, sometimes, fatal as the human form.
According to an article in the New York Times, the dog version of jealousy is “not as complex as the human emotion, but similar in that there is a social triangle and the dog is trying to make sure it, not the rival, receives the attention.”
In the study, as it’s described in a a PLoS One paper co-written by Harris, researchers compared the reactions of dogs when their owners petted and talked to a jack-o’-lantern, read a children’s book aloud, and petted and talked to a stuffed toy dog that barked and whined.
The dogs paid little attention to the jack-o’-lantern or the book. But when dog owners petted and talked to the stuffed dog, their dogs reacted, coming over, pushing their noses into the owner or stuffed dog, sometimes barking, and sniffing the rear end of the stuffed dog.
I’m not sure that’s proof of jealousy — it could just be proof that dogs are smart enough to investigate when humans are trying to dupe them. On top of that, most dogs have experience playing with stuffed toys, as opposed to plastic pumpkins and children’s books. So it’s not too astonishing they would have a more excited reaction to them.
In that way, the findings of this study aren’t really too surprising, or revealing, but they are indicative, I think, of a trend — in the scientific community, in the news media, and among normal members of society — of seeing dogs more and more as humans.
The “dogs feel jealousy” study, for example — flimsy as its findings sound — was picked up by most major news organizations.
“Study: Jealousy Is So Universal Even Dogs Feel It,” reported the New York Times.
“Study: Dogs Can Feel Jealous, Too,” said a CNN headline.
At least NPR phrased their headline as a question: “Does Your Dog Feel Jealous, Or Is That A Purely Human Flaw?”
These days, the news media doesn’t need a legitimate study to draw sweeping conclusions; a viral video will do.
The headlines all presume to know what the beagle is feeling, and some go so far as to explain the goal of his behavior as well: “I’m Sorry! Charlie the guilty dog showers crying baby with gifts to apologize for stealing her toy,” reads the headline in The Daily Mail.
My problem is not with attributing emotions to dogs. I believe they have most of the ones we do, or at least most of the desirable ones. I believe they have other magical gifts and skills we haven’t even begun to figure out. I believe studying what’s going on in their heads is a good thing — at least when it’s done by dog experts. I can even handle a little anthropomorphization; given we’re humans we tend to interpret things in human terms.
What bothers me, for starters, is presenting such findings as new, when dog owners have known most of them all along. Sometimes, it’s as if scientists and the news media are saying, oh wait, we’ve discovered dogs are not unfeeling blobs of fur, after all. Well, duh.
The problem I have is not so much ascribing emotions to dogs as it is the vanity of assuming emotions are something only humans feel.
And feel free as well, video posters, to share your dog’s interesting and seemingly human-like behavior, and to offer any theories you might have.
But let’s not leap to wild conclusions, based on how things look through our human eyes. Let’s not forget that dogs have had emotions all along. Let’s not assume they are “catching up” with us in terms of their emotions and behaviors. Maybe they’ve been ahead of us all along.
And let’s not be so surprised — given the centuries man has been choreographing their evolution, and the half century or so they’ve been mostly living inside with us — that they’re picking up some of our habits, good and bad.
While we’re at it, let’s let dogs remain, at least in part, dogs.
Let’s keep in mind, during all this, what we can learn from them. Are dogs lagging behind us, in terms of developing a sense of jealousy, or are they exhibiting a purer form of what we homo sapiens have taken to ridiculous extremes?
And let’s at least keep our minds open to the possibility that, when it comes to what dog and man can learn from each other, we may not always be the teachers, or the role models, in that equation.
(Photos: Ace in Monterey, California, at home on the couch, and with a panhandler in Portland, Maine; by John Woestendiek / ohmidog!)
Posted by John Woestendiek July 30th, 2014 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: animals, anthropomorphization, cognition, dog, dogs, emotions, feelings, guilt, internet, jealousy, media, news, pets, pop culture, remorse, science, society, studies, study, trend, videos, viral, what dogs feel
One of the men behind the push to clone dogs — and market the service to bereaved pet owners — seems more convinced than ever that doing so was, if not a mistake, at least a quest that led to some bad places.
Lou Hawthorne, who established a cell bank (Genetic Savings & Clone) and pushed researchers at Texas A&M University to try and clone the world’s first dog in the late 1990s — in hopes of turning dog cloning into a profitable business — said in an interview last week that cloning has led to thousands of dogs suffering each year.
“A cloned dog contributes to the happiness of a family but I do not think it is possible to do it without a huge amount of suffering to hundreds of others,” Hawthorne told The Mirror, which was reporting on the first dog cloning for a customer in the UK.
Hawthorne has been out of the dog cloning business since shutting down BioArts, the successor to Genetic Savings & Clone, which closed not long after efforts to clone a dog at Texas A&M were dropped.
That research was funded by John Sperling, the wealthy founder of the University of Phoenix and the boyfriend of Hawthorne’s mother. Millions of dollars were poured into the attempt to clone Joan Hawthorne’s dog, Missy, a husky-border collie mix.
They picked up where American scientists left off, and dog cloning was achieved within two years with the 2005 birth of Snuppy, an Afghan hound manufactured from cells taken from a veterinary student’s dog.
Hawthorne, under the auspices of Bio Arts, later teamed up with Hwang Woo Suk, one of the lead scientists on the Snuppy project who opened his own lab after being fired from the university.
First, he had Hwang clone Missy, resulting in a dog named Mira, but when the clone was delivered to Joan Hawthorne she didn’t want her. She told a New York Times reporter at the time the puppy was too rambunctious.
Then Hawthorne and Hwang teamed up to produce and sell more clones. They held a “Golden Clone Giveaway,” in which a free cloning was offered to the winner of an essay contest, and an online auction where five winning bidders, offering upwards of $150,000, had their dogs cloned.
A second South Korean company RNL Bio, with help from another of Snuppy’s creators at SNU, was also cloning dogs — and it produced the first one sold to a customer not connected to the industry, a pit bull named Booger, five copies of which were cloned from the dead dog and, eventually, brought home by the California woman who owned him.
RNL pulled out of cloning pet dogs in 2011, not long after the publication of my book, “DOG, INC: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”
Hawthorne had already stepped away from the business by then. In September of 2009, Hawthorne pulled out of the partnership with Hwang, citing, among other reasons, his concerns that accepted animal welfare protocols – or at least those accepted by most Western countries — weren’t being followed by the South Koreans.
He also, at the time, blamed court fights over patent rights, the high cost of cloning, deformities and abnormalities that occurred in the cloning process, and what he called the ”distraction factor” — annoying questions from the media and bloggers about the wisdom and ethics of cloning dogs.
(As a newspaper reporter who wrote one of the earliest articles on commercial dog cloning, then a blogger, and then the author of “Dog, Inc.,” an expose of the dog cloning industry, I’m pretty sure that latter group included me.)
In his interview wih the Mirror, Hawthorne referred to the vast numbers of dogs that it took — up to 80, he said – to clone just one.
And, he said, random dogs used for cloning by Korean researchers were returned to the dog farms they were borrowed from — farms where dogs are raised for their meat.
“That is why I got out,” Hawthorne said. “I couldn’t care less if the cloning business world collapses but I care about suffering.”
Sooam told me, in 2009, that dogs used in the process were returned to the farms. In more recent years, however, Sooam has insisted that both the dogs from whom egg cells are harvested, and those who serve as surrogate mothers, are sent to adoptive homes when their use in the laboratory is completed.
Hawthorne’s remarks came after the birth of Mini Winnie, a dachshund cloned by Hwang’s lab for a London resident who won a contest sponsored by Sooam. As Sooam attempts to spread the word about its unusual service, Hawthorne has taken to speaking out against it.
Hawthorne now cares for two clones of Missy — Mira and Missy Too.
The Mirror reports Hawthorne has more recently been working on cures for human cancer and Alzheimer’s, and the newspaper quoted him as saying human cloning would be safer and more viable than dog cloning.
“Unlike the dog industry, no human would die.”
(Photos: Lou Hawthorne with Mira; Snuppy at Seoul National University, James Symington, winner of the “Golden Clone Giveaway,” with five clones of his former police dog, TrakR, in Los Angeles; Mira at the dog park; by John Woestendiek)
Posted by John Woestendiek April 16th, 2014 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animal welfare, animals, bioengineering, clone, cloned, cloning, cloning dogs, cost, dog cloning, dog cloning book, dog inc., dogs, ethics, first, hwang woo suk, interview, james symington, john woestendiek, lou hawthorne, mini winnie, mira, mirror, missy, missy too, pets, science, seoul national university, snuppy, sooam, technology, texas a&m university, trakr, uk
With more than 500 canine clones now roaming the world, you wouldn’t think the fact that one has been produced for a pet owner in the UK would make such a big splash.
But it has, and a big splash is just what the cloners had in mind.
To introduce its unique service to Britain, Sooam Biotech, the South Korean laboratory that’s now the only company cloning dogs, borrowed from an earlier chapter in dog cloning’s bizarre history. It held a public contest, awarding a free cloning as the grand prize.
The winner: Rebecca Smith, 29, of London, who learned in late March that a clone of her 12-year-old dachshund Winnie had been born in a Seoul laboratory, BBC reported.
She named the dog Mini Winnie.
The competition saw dog owners submit videos of their dogs and compete for the chance to “immortalize” their pet for free. The bill for dog cloning normally runs around $100,000.
“Sooam Biotech is looking for one person with the most special and inspiring reason for cloning his/her beloved dog,” the company said in announcing the contest.
The contest was similar to one held in the U.S. when dog cloning first hit the market. It was called the “Golden Clone Giveaway,” and the winner was TrakR, a search and rescue dog whose owner said the German shepherd found the last survivor in the rubble of 9/11.
The weird and wacky story of how dog cloning was achieved, how it was marketed, and the first customers to sign up for it can be found in my book, “DOG, INC.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”
The UK’s first canine clone — who won’t arrive in the country until after a 6-month quarantine period — was cloned at Sooam Biotech, a laboratory run by Hwang Woo Suk, who was a member of the Seoul National University team that produced the world’s first canine clone, Snuppy, in 2005.
That research began after an earlier effort to clone a dog in the U.S., at Texas A&M University, was unsuccessful.
The Texas A&M research was funded by John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix. After cloning a cat, and assorted farm animals, the Texas A&M efforts to clone a dog were called off, but Sperling’s front man, who had established a company to store the cells of dead and dying dogs (Genetic Savings & Clone), even before dog cloning was achieved, later teamed up Hwang and Sooam to offer an online auction, with the highest bidders receiving clones of their dogs.
Hwang founded his lab after getting fired from Seoul National University when his claim to have produced the world’s first cloned human embryos was deemed fraudulent. He was later convicted of embezzling research funds and illegally buying human eggs, but his 18-month sentence was suspended.
Hwang has more recently has embarked on trying to clone a woolly mammoth from 10,00-year-old remains found frozen in Siberia.
Meanwhile, he’s churning out laboratory-created dogs, more than 500 of which have been born to surrogate mother dogs at his lab and kennel.
To create Mini Winnie, a piece of skin was taken from Winnie and transported to Seoul. Cells from the sample were placed inside an anonymous donor dog’s egg cell and, with a jolt of electricity, they merged.
Then the embryo was implanted inside a surrogate dog that gave birth, via Caesarean, to Winnie on March 30.
“The world would be a better place with more Winnies in it,” Smith, 29, says in a Channel 4 documentary, “The £60,000 Puppy: Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”
Smith received the original Winnie as a present on her 18th birthday, and she says the dog helped her overcome “lots of demons,” including an eating disorder. Smith says Mini Winnie looks identical to the original, who is old and arthritic, but still alive.
Hundreds of pet owners have had dogs cloned since the first customer, a California woman who received five copies of her dead pit bull, Booger.
Critics of the process say cloning doesn’t result in the resurrection of an animal, but a laboratory-made twin, whose creation requires the involvement of numerous other dogs, and who might not act like the original at all.
Initially, two South Korean companies were cloning dogs for pet owners (and even more for research purposes), but one of the, RNL Bio, has pulled out of the dog-cloning business.
While the cloning process has grown more efficient, some animal welfare groups say risks are still high.
Dr Katy Taylor, Head of Science at The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said: “Cloning is a very unpredictable and extremely wasteful process … In order to produce just one ‘perfect’ clone, many puppies with the same genes as a loved animal will be born … Some of these puppies will be aborted or will die soon after birth from unpredictable health complications and severe birth defects.”
Defective pups, and the South Korean laboratory’s failure to follow animal welfare protocols, were among the reasons cited by the American company that teamed up with Hwang for pulling out of its dog cloning arrangement.
The documentary, while it mostly follows the judges as they visit with contestants and their dogs, does go some interesting places, including Edinburg, for an interview with Sir Ian Wilmut, cloner of Dolly the sheep. Wilmut doesn’t endorse pet cloning, and says he remains skeptical of it, saying it will lead to lots of disappointed customers who, despite their hopes, won’t get an animal with the same personality as the original.
There’s also an interview with a pet owner, not a contestant, who views dog cloning as a Hitleresque pursuit, and there are several allusions to the fact that some Koreans eat dog meat.
“The £60,000 Puppy: Cloning Man’s Best Friend” was made by the same independent production company that produced “I Cloned My Pet,” several episodes of which appeared on TLC.
“The £60,000 Puppy” is an improvement over those productions, which brushed aside most ethical questions and animal welfare concerns about pet cloning. While the new documentary doesn’t delve too deeply into them either, it does present something more than a one-sided view.
Like the earlier documentaries, it reinforces that most customers of dog cloning are, shall we say, eccentric sorts, and that their attachment to their dogs — as with all of us — is a powerful one.
Perhaps the most telling moment, though, comes as the judges debate — American Idol style — the public relations benefits of each contestant.
After that, the winner is … after a long, long pause … announced.
Cloning, it seems, is no longer some futuristic pipedream. It has become a reality, and apparently an entertainment form.
My view? Cloning is no game show, or at least it shouldn’t be.
(Photos: Top, Mini Winnie / Channel 4; middle, Hwang in his lab / John Woestendiek; bottom; Smith and the original Winnie / Channel 4)
Posted by John Woestendiek April 11th, 2014 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, biotech, book, canine, cells, clone, cloned, clones, cloning, contest, customers, dog cloning, dog cloning book, dog inc., dogs, free cloning, great britain, hwang woo suk, laboratory, marketing, pets, science, seoul, seoul national university, snuppy, sooam, technology, uk
A dog cemetery that goes back to Aztec times has been uncovered beneath an old apartment building in Mexico City.
Archaeologists announced the discovery Friday and said that — while the remains of dogs have been found in Aztec ruins before — this is the first time a group of dogs has been found buried together at one site.
The 12 dogs were buried around the same time in a small pit between 1350 a 1520 A.D., according to the Associated Press.
Aztecs believed dogs could guide human souls into a new life after death, and it was not uncommon for dogs to be buried under monuments under the thinking their spirits would provide protection.
The team of archaeologists determined when the dogs were buried through ceramics and other items found in nearby pits under the apartment building in the populous Mexico City borough of Aztacapozalco.
Archaeologist Rocio Morales Sanchez said digging deeper could help reveal why the dogs were buried there.
Experts with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH, called the find “exceptional.”
Archaeologist Antonio Zamora, who works at the excavation site, said a biologist told the team the remains belonged to medium-sized dogs, likely Techichi dogs, a breed believed to be an ancestor of the Chihuahua, and Xoloitzcuintlis.
(Photo: Courtesy of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History)
Posted by John Woestendiek February 17th, 2014 under Muttsblog.
Tags: apartment, archaeologists, archaeology, aztacapozalco, aztec, aztecs, breeds, building, burial ground, buried, canine, cemetery, chihuahua, discovery, dog, dogs, mexico, mexico city, protection, remains, ruins, science, souls, spirits, Techichi, together, Xoloitzcuintlis
Throw a dog who has never gone swimming into a pool and, pretty much instantly, he’ll start moving his four legs in a series of motions we’ve come to call the dog paddle.
Throw a human who has never gone swimming into a pool and — though the possibilities are much higher for helpless flailing about, cussing, drowning, or becoming traumatized for life — he may eventually come to his senses enough to try and work his way back to the side of the pool. He’ll do so not using a butterfly stroke, breast stroke or Australian crawl, but by doing what dogs do.
The dog paddle: It’s seemingly instinctual. It’s primitive. And though we humans mostly outgrow it, it remains sort of the default mode of propelling ourselves through water.
Just how primitive it may be is under investigation by Dr. Frank Fish, a professor of biology at West Chester University who — maybe because of his name, maybe not — has spent most of his career studying how marine mammals swim.
Most recently, he has been studying the swimming motions of dogs, and he has concluded that they are very similar to the motions dogs use in trotting. That explains the ease with which most dogs can make the transition from land to water — requiring no lessons, and (generally) little coaxing: They basically propel themselves the same way in water as they do on land.
That their stride and strokes are nearly identical is interesting in itself, but Fish thinks it could also help explain how whales and dolphins ended up in the ocean.
Fish subscribes to the theory that marine mammals were intitially four-legged land dwellers who ventured into the water one day (likely dog paddling at first), decided they liked it better there, then evolved into such super swimmers that they no longer needed legs, or, for that matter, land.
He borrowed a swimming pool used to rehabilitate horses at the University of Pennsylvania.
Analyzing the video, Fish and fellow researchers saw that dogs swim much like they run — with diagonal pairs of legs churning in unison, according to Science Daily. Fish presented his findings at the 2014 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Austin.
While there’s plenty of dog research we’d categorize as a silly waste of time, we find all this pretty intriguing.
First, it reminds us that practice makes perfect — to think that long, long ago there might have been a couple of four-legged dolphins who didn’t know how to swim, hesitating at the edge of the water: “I dunno, it looks dangerous … should we go in?”
Second, in an era when we’re increasingly relying on computers to do our thinking for us, it serves as a warning that those muscles we don’t use can disappear. It raises a host of interesting questions about our future, and our past.
Why is it we humans tend to dog paddle in our first encounters with water? Is that some sort of instinctual nod to a past when we got about on four legs, instead of two?
If cavemen had spent more time at the swimming hole, might we homo sapiens have evolved into something more amphibious?
Given that, might mermaids really exist?
It’s kind of inspiring to think there might have been a day when dolphins, the planet’s most graceful swimmers, were total klutzes in the water — that they started off splashing about with some awkward looking dog paddling and progressed to the point where they could actually leap out of the water.
It reminds us that, maybe, anything is possible with enough hard work — even when it comes to behaviors we might think are genetic and therefore unchangeable. Do we sometimes wear our genes too tightly, and allow them to restrict us from leaping into new things, and getting over old ones?
We wish Fish luck in unraveling how four-legged terrestrial forms evolved into no-legged, finned ones. And as long as the dogs involved in his research are having a good time – given Fish is letting his own dog be used in the study, we assume they are – we have no problem with them helping the professor prove his point.
In other words: Go Fish!
(Top Photo, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology; bottom photo, from the book Underwater Dogs)
Posted by John Woestendiek January 16th, 2014 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, biology, dog paddle, dogs, dolphins, evolution, frank fish, genes, genetics, instinct, land, legs, mammals, marine, motions, movement, nature, research, science, study, swim, swimmers, swimming, water, west chester university, whales
I’ve often wondered why my dog Ace circles before he poops. He’ll go into a semi-squat, then, like a lazy Susan, make two or three revolutions before unloading.
Could it be he has an “inner compass” and is getting himself in line with the earth’s axis?
A new study suggests that canines line up along magnetic field lines to do their business. How they do that remains a mystery; why they do that perhaps an even bigger one.
Maybe they know something we don’t — we being so far removed from the natural world that we mindlessly let our toilets dictate the direction we face while defecating.
Who knows how much better off our digestive health might be, how much better aligned our chakras might be, if we all voided while facing directly north or south?
Whether there are benefits to parallel pooping — for humans or dogs — are not matters the Czech and German researchers addressed in their paper, recently published in Frontiers in Zoology.
Instead, the research focused on whether dogs – like cattle, deer and foxes – line up parallel to the earth’s axis when they defecate.
Over a two-year period, the researchers observed 70 dogs, of 37 different breeds, as they went on outings, and duly logged each urination (5,582) and defecation (1,893), as well as the direction the dogs were facing while doing the deed.
They say the results lend credence to the suggestion that dogs and other animals have some sort of internal mechanism that helps guide them in matters of pooping, and likely much more — at least when the earth’s magnetic field is stable.
The earth’s magnetic field is stable is only about 20 percent of the time during daylight, they note. But when looking only at those periods, dogs off leash seemed to prefer to poop with their bodies oriented along the north-south axis, the study said — facing either directly north or south. As for peeing, female dogs did that while aligned with the north-south axis, while male dogs preferred a northwest heading.
The researchers say that if dogs are capable of “magnetoreception,” it would open “totally new horizons for magnetobiological research.”
As for why the dogs do it in the first place, the authors said, “An answer may lie in the biological meaning of the behavior: If dogs would use a visual … magnetic map to aid general orientation in space, as has been proposed for rodents, they might have the need to center/calibrate the map now and then with regard to landmarks or a magnetic reference …We might think of this the same way as a human is stopping during a hike to read a map.”
In other words, maybe dogs use pooping as an opportunity to take stock, get their bearings, plot their next step and better understand their place in the universe.
Humans sometimes do that on the toilet, too, I’d venture, especially when they run out of magazines to read.
And while most humans don’t put much thought into what direction they’re facing during the act, or whether they’re aligned with the earth’s axis, there are some who advise taking that under consideration.
In a cursory — highly cursory — search of the Internet, we found a website called Vaastu NaresH, which suggests a water closet that faces north or south will lead to increased health and happiness. Another feng shui-related website advised one’s entire bathroom face north — not so much to align with the earth’s axis, but because that’s where the malevolent spirits are.
(I’m not sure the malevolent spirits appreciate being honored that way, whether they might prefer that you, instead of offering a full view, shut the door and turn on the exhaust fan. Then again, they are malevolent.)
As for dogs, I’ve never noticed any consistent alignment when it comes to defecating. My dog Ace seems to be an omni-directional pooper, basing his stance on whether the sun is in his eyes, whether there’s something interesting to watch off in the distance in some particular direction, how urgent the situation is, or simply what point he’s at in his urgent and dervish-like pre-poop spin when nature finally calls.
Then again, what do I know? My toilet faces southeast.
Posted by John Woestendiek January 6th, 2014 under Muttsblog.
Tags: alignment, animals, axis, bathrooms, behavior, compass, defecation, direction, directional, dogs, dung shui, earth, experiment, feng shui, humans, internal, magnetic field, magnetoreception, observations, pets, poop, pooping, research, researchers, science, toileting, toilets
The older I get the more wary I become of technology.
What I haven’t figured out is whether one necessarily follows the other: Am I just becoming more fearful as I age, or is technology proving itself more worth fearing?
Both are unstoppable forces. Just as one can’t stop the march of time (even with anti-aging technology), one can’t stop the march of technology.
It keeps coming — whether it’s wise or not, safe or not — and we all blindly jump on board and become dependent on it. If it makes us prettier, gets us where we’re going, let’s us accomplish things more quickly, or function without actually using our brains, we humans are generally all for it.
Already we’re reliant on the Internet, GPS, and cell phones. Already we can purchase almost anything we want online. But the day may soon come when, once we order it, it gets delivered by a robot, perhaps a flying one, or a terrain-traversing one, or one capable of hurling 35-pound cinder blocks 17 feet.
I would say these robot dogs could become the newspaper delivery boys of tomorrow, if newspapers had a tomorrow.
Last month 60 Minutes revealed that Amazon was working on drones that will be able to fly to homes and deliver packages at our doorstep.
Last week the New York Times reported that Google has purchased Boston Dynamics, the engineering firm that designed the graceful beast known as “Big Dog” (seen in the video above) and other animal-like robots, mostly for the Pentagon.
It is the eighth robotics company that Google has acquired in the last half-year, but Google’s not divulging what it’s up to.
Given search engines don’t generally need to climb mountains, or hurl cinder blocks, to find their information, one can only wonder.
Is the company branching into war machines? Does it want to corner the market on robot pets? (Boston Dynamics did serve as consultant on Sony’s ill-fated pet robot dog, Aibo.) Is it hoping to take Google Earth one step further and have robots take photographs through our windows? Or, more likely, is Google, like Amazon, positioning itself to become the place where you buy everything, and working on lining up a delivery team whose members don’t require salary, or health insurance, or coffee and pee breaks?
It almost looks like Amazon is poised to cover air delivery, while Google, with its latest purchase, is positioning itself to cover the ground. (That, at least until Big Dog becomes amphibious, leaves the high seas open — aye, aye robot! — for, say, a Yahoo, Bing or eBay).
Boston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., builds animal-like machines that can traverse smooth or rocky terrain, some of them at speeds faster than a human. Most of its projects have been built under contracts with Pentagon clients like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
Google executives said the company would honor existing military contracts held by Boston Dynamics, but that it did not plan to become a military contractor on its own.
So why does it need computers with legs, or robots that can climb walls and trees? Surely Google isn’t working on ”Terminators” that can track you down, knock on your door and provide you with the top 10 recipes for apple crumb cake.
The Times reports: ”… Executives at the Internet giant are circumspect about what exactly they plan to do with their robot collection. But Boston Dynamics and its animal kingdom-themed machines bring significant cachet to Google’s robotic efforts … The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care.”
EVEN ELDER CARE? Oy, robot! I do not want a robot dispensing my medication if I end up in such a facility. At that time, I will be even more terrified of technology, and the last thing I would want to see would be a robot coming into my room – no matter how sexy its voice – saying, “Time for your sponge bath.”
I’m not a total Luddite.
I can publish a website or two, and can hook up my cable TV, and can figure out about 10 percent of what my cell phone does.
But I resent how steep the learning curve has become — how much effort is involved in keeping up with technology. That device promising to make life easier — once you spend a week programming it — may be smaller than your little finger, but its owner’s manual will be fatter than a James Michener novel.
What I fear, though, is where technology can lead, especially technology without forethought, and how quickly and blindly many of us hop on the bandwagon, giving little consideration to the possible repercussions, and how easily it can run amok.
The one futuristic (but already here) technology I’ve researched most is dog cloning. Once achieved, the service was offered to pet owners hoping to bring their dead dogs back to life, and willing to pay $150,000 for that to be accomplished in South Korean laboratories. It bothered me so much, and on so many levels, I wrote a whole book about it. You can order it through Amazon, but don’t expect drone delivery for at least a couple more years. Might one day drones deliver our clones?
I realize my fears are both irrational and rational.
Fretting about the future, I guess, is part of getting older. Old fart worries were around back when automobiles first hit the road (and went on to become a leading cause of death). And it’s probably true that once we stop moving forward, we tend to stagnate. But there’s moving forward and smartly moving forward.
I’m not a fan of big government (except when it helps me get health insurance), but I sometimes wonder if we need a federal Department of Whoa, Let’s Take a Look at this First. Maybe it could monitor emerging technologies, and their ramifications, and determine whether they should be allowed to emerge at all. Maybe that would prevent unimaginable (but, with enough research, entirely predictable) things from happening — like cell-phone shaped cancers forming on the exact spot of our bodies where we pack our cell phones.
But we tend to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to those kinds of things. We wait for the damage to be done and leave it to personal injury lawyers to straighten it out — whether it’s a new anti-psychotic drug that unexpectedly made young males grow female breasts, or irreparable harm done by robotic surgical devices. (If you’ve been victim of either, lawyers are standing by to help you. At least that’s what my TV tells me.)
I want to enter my golden years without shiny silver robots assisting me in living, and without drones hovering outside my door (even if they are delivering a good book). Though I’ve met some clones, I wouldn’t mind getting through life without having any contact with droids and drones and robot dogs.
Sometimes, at least from the Fearful Old Man Perspective (FOMP), it seems we’re so focused on the future that we fail to see and appreciate the present, and don’t even begin to learn from the past.
Sometimes it seems we like dancing on the cutting edge, then cry foul when our feet get sliced up.
Sometimes it seems we embrace technology too quickly and casually, when it should be a careful and thoughtful embrace, made with the realization that, as much as technology can make life better, it can also screw it up badly. We tend to view technology in terms of what it can add to our life, not even considering what it might subtract. And, in what’s the biggest danger of all, we tend to let it overrule our hearts and do our thinking for us.
It can save and prolong lives, even, in a way, re-create them. It can make our human lives – though it’s arguable — more convenient.
But it can also gnaw away at us until we become tin men and scarecrows — maybe not actually missing our hearts and brains, but at least forgetting we ever had them.
Posted by John Woestendiek December 18th, 2013 under Muttsblog.
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