George Dvorsky: On video-gaming pets, the future of nonhuman animals, and cultural uplift.December 28, 2011
George Dvorsky, is a Canadian futurist, ethicist, and sociologist, who has written and spoken extensively about the impacts of cutting-edge science and technology—particularly as they pertain to the improvement of human performance and experience. A founding member of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, he is the Chairman of the Board and is the founder and program director for its Rights of Non-Human Persons program. In addition, George is the co-founder and president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association and has served on the Board of Directors for Humanity+ for two terms. George has been interviewed by such publications as The Guardian, the BBC, Radio Free Europe, and Beliefnet. He made an appearance on the CBC’s The Hour and has been profiled in NOW and This Magazine. His work has been cited in such publications as the New York Times, Forbes, and Slate. He has also written for such publications as The Humanist, Canadian Freethinker, Cryonics Magazine and a number of Thomson & Gale university texts. He is also an avid CrossFitter, an ancestral health enthusiast, and an accomplished music performer, composer, and recording engineer. He blogs at Sentient Developments.
Wanderlust: There has been a recent increase of Internet videos (the ones above) that depict humans enabling their pets to “play” video games on smart-phones and video game consoles. Similarly, in order to gain new insight into animal behavior, scientists have been experimenting with multimedia-enabled devices in the last decades. Today, along scientists, game designers are trying to merge human spaces with pet spaces through pervasive computing interfaces.
Could these new technologies reduce anthropocentrism and blur the gap between different species?
G.D: There is no question that new technologies are allowing humans and animals to interact in more profound and novel ways. As a result, we are getting increasingly able to peer more deeply into the psyche of animals and gain a better understanding of how they perceive and engage in the world.
In some cases, these interactions re-enforce our suspicion that many animals are more intelligent and thoughtful than we have previously thought. We are finding that animals are quite ‘human-like’ in many respects. We share many traits, including the joy of play, applying skill, and winning games. No example captures this more effectively than the video of Kanzi, a bonobo ape, who discovers the sheer bliss of playing Pac Man. There is something intrinsically universal, at least among primates, about chasing and gobbling-up annoying little ghosts.
By showing that animals like to play as much as we do, our sense of empathy in increased. It helps us to relate more, and acquire an enhanced sense of the other.
But because we have previously suffered from a communications gap, and even a kind of interspecies disconnect, it has been all too easy for the dominant species to subjugate animals and belittle their capacities. By playing games with we are forced to interact with them in more intimate sort of way, which can only impart a stronger sense of their moral worth.
Now, that said, there is a risk that these sorts of technologies can be taken too far. In most of these cases, these are human games designed for humans. Or, they are designed for animals for the purpose of entertaining humans (take the iPad mouse game for cats — those poor cats are getting tortured!). It would be more interesting to see games that are strictly designed for a specific species. If we are going to do this right, we need to engage animal minds. Again, the challenge is to understand animal psychology, and cater to their particular tendencies and talents (including different sensorial bandwidths).
What I would like to see in the next generation of animal-and-human video games is a greater opportunity for collaboration between two players. The Pig Chase experiment is an early but unfulfilled attempt at this. For greater impact, game developers will need to learn about animal psychology and cognition. I am imagining, for example, a game in which success is dependent on the various strengths of two different species. It has been shown, for example, that some primates can perform memorization tasks better than humans (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/12/071203-AP-chimp-memory.html). And obviously humans perform a number of cognitive tasks better than primates. It would be quite profound to create a game in which inter-species co-operation is a necessary requirement for success (to increase sense of bonding and camaraderie), and at the same time, still be a lot of fun.
Do you see technology as the only tool to blur this gap mainly created by language?
G.D: It is certainly the most potent facilitator. I am hard pressed to come up with other solutions that will improve human-to-animal interaction and engagement. Some of the most important breakthroughs in animal-human relations have a definite technological component, whether it be Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s lexigram interfaces for bonobos, or Jack Kassewitz’s sono-pictoral communication schema for dolphins. Science progresses best when accompanied by increasingly powerful technologies, and research into animal psychology and communication is no exception.
That said, there are some other things we can do to help us connect with animals. By educating ourselves about animal capacities, we stand a better chance of appreciating their potential. When we know more about what they like and what they like to do, we can cater our activities accordingly and find novel ways of spending our time with our companion animals.
Lexigrams used by the bonobos at Great Ape Trust. Developed by Dr. Rumbaugh.
Image from the Speak Dolphin website. Jack Kassewitz 2011.
Can a comparison be drawn between the beliefs systems acknowledged by indigenous cultures around the world that value death and the unknown and the direction science and technology are taking toward cognitive enhancement and life extension?
G.D: This gets into the whole issue of cultural exchange and even cultural uplift. We know that information moves both up- and down-stream when two disparate civilizations interact. Some ideas can result in positive cultural reforms, while others can be more detrimental. If, for example, an indigenous culture is introduced to modern creature comforts they never knew about before, that suddenly creates a desire in them that had not existed before (i.e. the ‘ignorance is bliss’ argument). One can make a case, however, that the quest for improvement and better living conditions is not a bad thing.
Cultural relativism is problematic even at the best of times. It suggests that all cultures are of roughly equal value, and that it is difficult, if not impossible, to judge them from the outside. The difficulty with this, however, is that as a civilization we are increasingly working to create an objective measure of fairness and social justice. As a part of this, we may come to conclude that things like education and healthcare, and even eventually cognitive enhancement and life extension, are an essential component of human well-being. And if that is the case, we may find that we are ethically compelled to introduce such concepts to those cultures that are unaware of such things.
If a non-human life (of your choice) could understand your words, what would you say?
G.D: I would like to direct a question to not just one species, but any potential nonhuman person, namely the great apes, elephants, and cetaceans. And my question would be this: ‘Do we have your consent to uplift?’
Indeed, as a theorist of animal enhancement, I am both fascinated and troubled by the question of consent. One of the most common challenges to animal uplift is that we cannot assume that we have their approval. Similar to the ‘ignorance is bliss’ argument, it has been said that animals in a state of nature are at their most content. Consequently, any attempt to ‘humanize’ them would be massively disruptive to their well-being. In a sense, we could be pulling them out of innocence and into the human world of problems. Some have even argued that this is nothing more than human imperialism.
May take is bit more nuanced than this. As noted earlier, there is certain universality to intelligence among all animals. To say that we are working to ‘humanize’ animals is not entirely fair. My vision of animal enhancement is to improve capacities across the board, including those of humans. I suspect that post-humans will be different from post-elephants. Or perhaps there will be convergence of forms. It is difficult to predict right now, but it is fair to say that either instantiation will be profoundly different than biological humans or elephants. For a more detailed analysis of this subject, see my paper, ‘All Together Now: Developmental and ethical considerations for biologically uplifting nonhuman animals.’
Moreover, the quest for enhancement is simultaneously the quest to escape Darwinian processes. Human history has largely been about wresting control from naturalistic processes. I contend that we need to help our non-human animal planet-mates to do the same, and that given this baseline understanding, they would agree.
But I do not know that for certain. Hence, my desire to properly interface with a non-human animal and have the conversation.
Thank you so much for your insight George Dvorsky. www.sentientdevelopments.com
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