NS Internet column
Written 14 January 2000 for the New Statesman
I made a small joke once to a jogger about being able to outrun guard dogs and he didn't think it funny at all: a friend of his had been set upon in the park by a couple of labradors who pulled over their little old lady owner, bounded after the runner, and set about castrating him. Fortunately they did not complete the job, but the other thing that made the story memorable was that the owner, when she finally pulled them off and set about helping and apologising to the bleeding victim, said "They never usually do that!" The moral, I think, is that owning dogs damages the brain as much as much as being chewed by them can damage the other organs.
Virtual dogs can't do much physical damage: eyestrain, RSI, a touch of raised blood pressure when my wife finds they've done a screensaver all over her half of the computer; but the effect they have had on my daughter's mind is extraordinary. I bought her Dogz 3 as a stocking filler at Christmas. The zed in these names is important and probably trademarked. They are part of a line of Petz, who play with Treatz and zo on. Some years ago she had played with Catz 1 for a while, and then grown bored. But technology has taken huge strides since then; and Dogz 3 is carefully designed to be very much more addictive.
The Dogz react in vaguely predictable ways to their owners' behaviour. They like to be petted, fed, watered, and given thingz to play with on screen. The box solemnly assures her that they must be played with every
time you launch Petz3
Ferocious gonk (19:2 Sun 16/1/2000)
The Dogz are not unduly realistic: they lack traditional distinguishing marks, like bollockz. Instead, the male ones have a blue name tag and the female ones are
pink, also their tails are shoter than the males'.
Ferocious gonk (18:56 Sun 16/1/2000)
And now two of her dogz are pregnant, or as she puts it, four of them are expecting babies. This is not without drama: I quote from an email Rosie sent upstairs this morning — "The swine, Peridot, having made Chocolate pregnant, is taking no notice of her and not even attempting to help her during her pregnancy." The other male, apparently, arranges cushionz around the buttockz of his expectant spouse.
This is all clever enough. But the makers have thought further. What is to happen to all these cute little puppiez when they are born? Might they be drowned, or formatted if there is no room for them? Of course not. They are adopted, at specially designed web sites, of which there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. You can take snapshotz of your petz and display them on the web, or — as unsuspecting Grannies are shortly to find out — print them into the letterhead of the paper on which you write your thank you notez. Rosie would spend hours every day searching for fluffy wolves and foxes to adopt if we would let her.
Mass sentimentality provokes its own antibodies on the net. Parallel to the rings of petz sites where snapshots of gambolling puppies in pink cardigans are displayed there are other, darker sites, run by teenage boyz. These are devoted to Pet torturez, and feature pictures of dogz that have been sprayed with water when they wanted cuddles, and starved, too. Since the petz never eat anything that does not come from a can this comes as a terrible shock to their trusting ownerz; so the pro-petz web sitez are full of amnesty-type declarations against torture, which must make the torturerz feel really good.
Of course, part of everyone involved knows this is all a game. It's not, in that sense, proper artificial intelligence. But it is amazing and rather depressing to watch how completely Rosie has been sucked into the game. She would talk of nothing else if we let her; and when we get bored, she can always log on and find thousandz of freindz, all talking about the same thing. It's the first time the web has really grabbed her, and it has done so for purely commercial purposes. You don't need real AI if all you want to do is manipulate humanz.