Originally published in Artbyte, March-April 2000, pp. 22-23.


Atomic Dogs

Steven Shaviro

Dogs are a part of human technology. They belong to culture, rather than nature. Their very existence is a triumph of engineering. Archaeological evidence indicates that dogs were tamed at least 14.000 years ago; the examination of canine mitochondrial DNA suggests perhaps as long as 100.000 years ago. In any case, at some point, human beings captured members of the wolf species and trained and bred them to create the domestic dog. "Man's best friend" has been an integral part of human society ever since, a companion in our work and leisure. As cultures and technologies have changed, dogs have changed right along with them. What new twists might be in store for dogs, given our current development of digital and genetic technologies?

Artist and theorist Eduardo Kac suggests one possible answer. Kac proposes what he calls "transgenic art'. He wishes to create a phosphorescent dog through genetic manipulation. Green Florescent Protein (GFP) is a bioluminescent substance found in a jellyfish of the Pacific Northwest. Scientists have isolated the gene sequence that codes for GFP and inserted it into the embryos of frogs and mice. Kac wants to take the process a step further, by adding the GFP sequence to the canine genome. The process is feasible and harmless to the dog. The main difficulty is figuring out how to "turn on" the DNA sequence properly, so that it expresses itself via GFP in the dog's fur. The result of Kac's project would be GFP-K9: a new breed of dog that literally glows in the dark. Kac proposes to create such a dog, adopt it, and live with it as a "family member."

Kac met with a largely hostile response when he proposed this project at the Ars Electronica conference in Austria last September. But he points out that his idea resembles what dog breeders have been doing for several centuries. Some dog breeds are entirely functional, but many more have been created largely for aesthetic reasons. The only novelty in Kac's project, really, is that he proposes to modify the dog genome directly, whereas traditional breeding affects it indirectly, through the phenotype.

Also, Kac is an ethically responsible breeder. He will use a gene sequence the effects of which are benign and already known, instead of relying upon the peril of chance mutations. Many currently existing breeds have paid the price for their distinctive size or shape, in the form of severe health problems and diminished life expectancy; this will not be the case with GFP-K9. Kac also gives a very different sort of justification. He notes that the idea of the chimera, or the cross-species hybrid, has been "part of our imaginary for millennia. A profound cultural transformation takes place when chimeras leap from legend to life, from representation to reality." Viewed in this light, Kac's project is a magical, alchemical one, justified on the grounds of its symbolic efficacy.

These arguments might seem like special pleading, but that doesn't make them any less valid. The real problem is that the idea of a glow-in-the-dark dog strikes many people as inherently ridiculous. Kac's proposal seems arbitrary, fanciful, and devoid of use value. But that is precisely what makes it a work of art. Genetic engineering is here to stay, whether we like it or not. It has already reshaped our world and will continue to do so. Kac knows that simply objecting to this technology is futile. He seeks, rather, to use it differently. This means diverting it from its accustomed channels. Kac removes genetic engineering from the corporate realm and places it, instead, in an aesthetic and domestic context. He strips away its utilitarian rationale. The project offers us a rare glimpse of a pleasingly gratuitous and convivial use of technology.

Another futuristic canine under development is AIBO, a Sony product not of genetic engineering but of state-of-the-art software and hardware design. AIBO is an autonomous "entertainment robot": a digital simulation of a dog. It is small, about the size of the tiniest toy dog breeds. It comes in three colors: metallic silver, metallic black, or grey-silver.

AIBO has the general shape of a dog: a head complete with a snout, floppy ears, and LED sits for eyes a compact body with four legs, and a tail that actually wags. It walks with a doglike waddle, and shakes and cocks its head like a dog. It can play with a ball by kicking it. It even lifts its leg from time to time to pee like a male dog (fortunately no liquid actually comes out.). All in all, AIBO is undeniably cool, in the way Japanese entertainment products often are. Its price is quite steep $2,500. But Sony has had no problem selling all 15,000 of the units manufactured so far.

What really sets AIBO apart from other robot toys is the relative complexity of its behavior. It modifies its conduct in response to the outside world. Its actions are independent enough that it seems more than just a projection of its owner's will. AIBO displays "six different emotional states: joy, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and discontent." It shows these feelings by flashing its eyes green (for joy) or red (for anger) of a pattern combining both colors (for the other emotions). It also plays little electronic ditties to express its moods. AIBO has the senses of sight , hearing, and touch. It sees its surroundings with a video camera in its head. It tends to be attracted to bright colors, and it shows a degree of object recognition. It hears and obeys commands delivered in the form of musical tones.

An you can reward your AIBO by patting its head, or punish it by delivering a quick slap. Such positive and negative reinforcement affect AIBO's future behavior. Out of the box, AIBO is a puppy. It gradually matures through interaction with its owner. As it grows up, its behavior gradually becomes more coordinated and complex. Different adult AIBO's have different personalities, depending upon the details of their upbringing.

The big question about AIBO, of course, is the one that haunts all discussions of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life. To what extent is AIBO really "alive"? Does it truly exhibit intelligent behavior? Or does it just simulate such behavior? Or does the distinction simply not make sense any longer? Suspect that there is no right answer to these questions. It is all in the eye of the beholder. Most of the AIBO owners I've heard from have become strongly attached to their robot pets. (Many have purchased more than one.) And they all see clear differences in temperament and behavior between one AIBO and another. To this extent, AIBO has passed the canine equivalent of the Tuning Test: The people who know it best are able and willing to accept it as they do a flesh-and-blood dog.

But the AIBO owners also know how profoundly their silicon-based pets differ from the traditional carbon-based ones. AIBO'S range of action remains for more limited than that of a "real" dog. This may only be a temporary problem. Sony promises to incorporate more complex behaviors like the ability to recognize and respond differently to particular human beings and others of its own kind. But other differences are more fundamental. You can reboot an AIBO when it's having problems. You can turn it off completely. If an AIBO's training goes wrong, you can wipe its memory clean and restart it as a puppy. Some owners have even been hacking AIBO's operating system. In all these ways, AIBO is more malleable and controllable than the biological dog.

Both GFP-K9 and AIBO are frontier beings: creatures of possibility and speculation. They are less important in themselves, perhaps, than as harbingers of the future. And yet, for all their strangeness, they are part of a technology and an ongoing connection that dates back beyond the start of recorded history. Humanity continues to renegociate its relationship with its canine other. In the words of George Clinton, "It's nothin' but the dog in me."


Steven Shaviro is Professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. His books include Doom Patrols: a theoretical fiction about postmodernism (1997), and The Cinematic Body (1993).


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