Frolicking with penguins on the Internet reminds us of our bond with beasts.
Last year, more than 134 million people visited zoos and aquariums in the United States-more than attended all major sporting events combined. Even more telling, nearly 60 percent of households include dogs or cats; more than fifty percent of pets receive holiday presents; and one-quarter of pet dogs sleep in their owners’ beds (you know who you are). In fact, 10 percent of dog owners are more attached to their dogs than to their spouses.
Evidence of our aching need for animal companionship doesn’t stop there. Look, for example, at trends in high-tech toys. Six million Tamagotchis-small LCDs displaying pseudopods that “eat” and “grow”-were preordered for U.S. sale, after sales of four million in Japan. Sales of the Gremlin-like, voice-mimicking Furby are in the tens of millions. Sony’s digital dog, Aibo, costs nearly 10 times as much as a real dog, but 3,000 of them sold out in 20 minutes; 100,000 have been sold since. Tiger sold 10 million Poo-Chi robot dogs last year. Cloning of pets has emerged as a real business. The human yearning to be in touch with animals is very deep indeed.
To gaze into the eyes of an animal, even for an instant, is to experience an awesome connection with another living being, transcending the species gap. It may be hide-and-seek with a puppy. Or frolicking with a dolphin (and having the odd feeling that the dolphin’s brain is considerably larger than your own). Or peeking out of a tent and being face to face with a polar bear. Whether playful, inspiring or terrifying (if you’re seen as lunch), these encounters have a power that can’t be conveyed in words. You have to feel it firsthand: not on a movie screen, not in virtual reality, but in real reality.
Most of us don’t know what we’re missing, of course. Few people have the privilege of visiting locales such as the magical, otherworldly Galapagos Islands. Setting foot there is like visiting a zoo, except you are the animal on display. A mockingbird flits over and lands on your head. Take a swim and seals join in. Penguins, who are so comically awkward on land, streak past in the water like little F-15 jets. Visiting the place blew Charles Darwin’s mind and inspired him to write On the Origin of Species, one of the most momentous books in science.
But it’s said that one island in the archipelago is different. There, the birds and seals run away and hide. A visitor, taken aback by such un-Galapagos-like antisocial behavior, asked what was wrong. “A few centuries ago,” his guide said, “hunting was done on this island, and only here. The animals learned to fear man-and they never forgot.” Perhaps that one island was a lot like the rest of our world.
Just as this article was going to press, a tanker carrying 900,000 liters of diesel oil ran aground by San Cristobal island at the eastern end of the Galapagos (www.galapagos.org) and began leaking. Seals 50 kilometers away turned up with gooey oil in their fur. The extent of the damage is not yet known, but the consequences of such a poisonous wreck could be catastrophic in that singular, fragile ecosystem. It may be an extinction event for many species. The Charles Darwin Research Station is now urgently soliciting funds for help online (see www.darwinfoundation.org).
Halfway around the world we find another example of a remote ecosystem that offers the most adventurous among us a glimpse of the wild, and that, like the Galapagos, is suffering from human presence. Everyone I know who has encountered the mountain gorillas in the Virunga rain forest on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo considers it to be a life-altering experience. Yet vital habitat is being destroyed as sprawling human populations encroach. Amid the regional wars and horrific genocide, gorillas seem of little consequence. The animals are often killed by marauding soldiers and slaughtered for “bushmeat” by poachers. It might as well be cannibalism: about 98 percent of our DNA is the same. Fewer than 650 of these gorillas remain.
As wilderness gets ever more rare, one of the best ways that technology can serve us is in bringing us closer to the wild without destroying it. Recently, new technologies have enabled us to be “with” wild animals in a way never before possible. Cinematographer Daniel Zatz uncovered a useful clue when he was in the field struggling to capture good footage. He just couldn’t get close enough to film the wildlife: the animals ran away.
One frustrating morning, he laid his video camera on the riverbank and went to get a sandwich. Upon return, he noticed that bears were strolling around near the camera. Birds were practically perched on it. That told him all he needed to know: the camera wasn’t the problem; he was. So he took Webcams a step further with www.seemorewildlife.com. With cameras in delicate places, like elephant-seal breeding grounds or grizzly bear fishing spots, the site lets online viewers watch animals in their native situations. You can even steer the camera to get a better view. In addition to letting us peek at exotic wildlife, his system has the bonus effect of making it harder for poachers to do damage: thousands of people who care are always keeping an eye on things.
Extending the idea to a greater range of habitat, Greg Marshall of National Geographic Television has spent the last 10 years perfecting the Crittercam, a tiny submersible video camera that can be worn by marine animals. It’s a simple idea, not unlike a quarterback’s helmetcam in a football broadcast. Suddenly it has become possible to ride on the back of a tiger shark, or dive thousands of feet with sperm whales, seeing the world from their point of view. The first video I saw was of penguins taken by penguins in the Antarctic. What a ride!
Now if we could just talk with the animals. Actually, research is bringing us a little closer to this Dr. Dolittle fantasy. Irene Pepperberg has been teaching African grey parrots to converse in basic (you might say “pigeon”) English. And recently, she and her students at the MIT Media Lab got them online-inventing systems that can potentially enrich the parrots’ lives. Their “InterPet Explorer” gives the birds a smart perch, equipped with a kind of joystick and liquid crystal display to access music, watch videos of other parrots or friendly trainers, and potentially make contact with other birds (see www.media.mit.edu/~impepper/petprojects/).
Other developments could bring us closer to animals that are closer to home. Pepperberg’s colleagues Bruce Blumberg and Benjamin Resner, for example, have devised a system that allows away-from-home dog owners to play with their pets through the Internet. Using “Rover@Home,” the owner can, for instance, remote-control a squeeze toy, dispense treats, and speak to the dog, all the while watching the pooch’s reaction through a video link (see www.media.mit.edu/~benres/research.html).
Our pets are truly friends. They have personalities. They play. They mope. They dream. They enrich our relationships and teach us lessons, especially in a world where, too often, humans behave worse than beasts. And animals possess real feelings, too. Is a bird sad when it’s singing? Or a kitten when it swats a ball of yarn? A dog when it’s gnawing a bone?
One very real feeling is loneliness. When you come home, is your dog just a teensy bit happy to see you? There’s a sense in which all of that joyful barking and slobbering, the wagging tail, the unalloyed happiness at being reconnected, is offset by the sadness of knowing that the dog’s life will only last about one-seventh as long as its human companion’s. My heart broke when our sweet, affectionate malamute, Tasha, passed away with her head in my hands eight months ago. It was not an unexpected event (fortunately, she had lived a long and happy life). But the sadness and sense of loss were more than I’d imagined, and the frustration of being able to look at her and pet her, but not speak to her, was almost unbearable.
Will technology ever produce a linguistic bridge between species? It’s still a fantastic question. But whether it does or not, our pet relationships are a powerful motivation to use technology to connect more deeply with the animal world. To ask why it’s useful to build interfaces with animals would be like asking Darwin, why go sailing?
But what’s extraordinary, especially considering how much we stand to learn from animals, is how we have scarcely begun to evolve technologies to communicate with them. The work by Zatz, Pepperberg and others is helping to show us the way. Let’s not forget that “pet” is not just a noun, but also a verb to describe the way you touch someone you love. And being in touch with animal friends, whether technically mediated or not, really matters.
Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.Subscribe today