We dream of the days when sci-fi can make us as content as those corpulent people from Wall-E (but also magically make us super-healthy too, in case we need to fight off sentient waste-collection robots).
However, for our pets, that fantastical future is already here.
Here's a look at the many surprising ways in which pets are experiencing science fiction, every day.
Tell me this doesn't happen to you: You're sitting there on an average day, looking at your genetically modified square watermelon and think, "Wow, could they do this for pets? That way my sheepdog would fit under my plane seat and I wouldn't have to pay an extra $100."
Maybe that isn't you, maybe it's just that one guy, but the truth is there is a huge market for getting pets to be super-weird through modern genetics.
You could have your pet glow in the dark.
There are dairy cows bred to remove those pesky horns.
Or even totally ripped pigs.
Even extinction is no longer a limit: Researchers have been mixing wooly mammoth genes into their closest living relatives: Elephants.
But that lacks creativity. Let's inject dinosaur DNA into their closest relative (chickens) and see what circus sideshow pops out.
Automatic Social Media Uploads
If you ever needed proof that selfie culture is, for the most part, brainless, look no further than PetBot. This system will take pictures of your pet and upload them to social media without requiring assistance from anyone with a human brain.
PetBot, which raised $137,294 from soon-to-be-friendless people on Indiegogo, prepares your pet for a photogenic moment by releasing a treat. Luckily, the treat can be almost anything you regularly give your pet ... so, good on PetBot for not making its owners purchase exclusive treat release packages.
My main objection is not about the oversaturation of social media with useless saccharine posts but rather the Big Brother aspect from the pets' point of view. Like, if I'm a dog, I just want to eat breakfast without being spied on and having pictures taken and sent to all my friends. Hey, maybe the dogs like it.
Fitbit, the body-sign-measuring wristband, now has a canine component. Naturally, my first question is: What does a Fitbit for dogs measure? According to their site, the following data is collected:
- Activity counts (BarkPoints)
- Rest, active and play time
- Nocturnal sleep score
- Overall health index
- Activity index
- Calorie burn
Obviously, this just leads to a whole bunch more questions, the main one being, "How annoyed are veterinarians going to be when overprotective owners start making appointments because Fluffernutter's not scoring enough Barkpoints?"
I was also greatly interested in the category "Nocturnal Sleep Score." As a tightly-wound tiger parent, it makes me happy to learn that there could be a whole new area in which to judge my children's performance. According to their site, "This metric (also referred to as 'sleep efficiency') identifies how long your dog spends resting at night (between 1-5AM by default – we're working on customizing this range). For example, a dog whose sleep score is 75% is spending three hours resting and one hour changing position or moving around."
Fervent interest has surrounded the makers of "No More Woof," a mind reading device for dogs.
No, it doesn't stop dogs from barking.
No, I don't know why they still decided to call it No More Woof.
This isn't the only sign that the creators might be a bit detached from reality: Their website states "The challenges we are facing using EEG on pets are a matter of placement for best comfort and how to identify the clearest signal when attaching the device on fur." Oh sure, once you've properly fitted the device on a dog, all you have to do is simply read its mind and you're done, easy peasy.
I kid, but there is actually sound science behind reading the brain processes of a dog. Animals all have electroencephalogram (EEG) readings, basically a measure of the electrical energy going on in the brain and where it is generated. So, if you pick up heavy EEG readings in the area where a dog processes hunger, it's a safe bet that the dog is hungry. Whereas human brain processes might be too numerous to ever get a reliable telekinetic device, the basic brain functions of a dog are quite limited. So, it is actually reasonable to expect a product to read a dog's brain for simple things like "I'm tired" or "I want to pee." Time will tell if this device provides a marked advantage over simply recognizing a dog's physical signs.
Zombification ... Possibly
In early 2015, an incredible tale started making the rounds online. As the story goes, a Florida man's cat was hit by a car. Distraught, the man asked his friend to bury his seemingly lifeless cat. The friend does so, then five days later the cat shows up with a broken jaw and a busted eye.
This whole thing seems suspicious.
Let's examine the facts: The only known witnesses to the burial were the owner and the friend who buried it. If I gave my beloved-but-dead pet to a friend to bury, then my pet shows up later, my first thought wouldn't be "Wow, this must have been a miraculous resurrection," but rather, "Wow, my friend is a huge flake."
Or, you know, "Wow, I'm a huge flake, because I thought my cat was dead when it wasn't."
Also, whether in a box or not, being buried alive is not something that's survivable without outside help. The movies make it seem like someone can break out of a coffin and excavate themselves, but they always cut away before the inevitable part where hundreds of pounds of dirt caves in on them, suffocating them in a matter of minutes. So, the only plausible explanation would be that the cat dug himself up immediately, then went wandering around unnoticed by anyone for five days.
Oh, did I mention that a different neighbor claimed their cat died on the same day of similar injuries? The same neighbor who set up a GoFundMe to get money for "surgeries" for the owner of zombie cat. This, despite the fact that the Humane Society paid for all of the cat's surgeries.
Apparently, I'm not the only one who got suspicious, as the Humane Society fought to prevent the owner from retaking his cat, claiming neglect.
Probably the best thing to take from all this is as follows: If you're trying to drum up empathy for a fraudulent GoFundMe, it's wise to not base it on a story that paints you as a guy who buried a live cat.
If you want a crazy pet story that's more science than fiction, look no further than the parasite Toxoplasma Gondii. It breeds in cats, then infects the brain of any creature that gets near the cats' feces, most commonly humans and rats. The creepy part is that, once infected, rats show an abnormally low amount of fear toward cat scents.
Take a moment to unpack this: The parasite, which needs to infect cats to grow, survives by infecting rats and making them stupidly dumb when it comes to not getting eaten by cats.
As far as affecting humans, sure, if you ask most dog owners, they'll say that all cat owners already have a ridiculous tendency to be near cats. But laboratory studies have found that Toxoplasma Gondii actively changes mice brains to decrease their aversion to predators.
I want to be clear that, most likely, parasites are not taking concrete steps towards global annihilation of all humans. However, if they were, it would be disheartening to note that 30-50% of the entire population has been infected. In fact, almost 84% of people in France have it.
Some cute little mice are enjoying the esoterical nightmare that is having false memories implanted in the brain. Yes, at MIT, scientists managed to make mice remember things that never actually happened.
If you are interested in the nuts and bolts, the process went like this:
- Mice are injected with a gene that causes memory cells to be reactive to light. I love how this crazy bit of science fiction is merely one step in this groundbreaking process
- Mice are allowed to explore a box (call this Box A because it adds a much needed dash of boring into this exciting work)
- The cells which recorded the memory of Box A are located. Another mind-blowing technique that is merely a step in this elaborate experiment
- The mouse is put in another box, the memory of Box A is triggered while the mouse gets a shock, presumably for not engineering a successful escape plan (or mastering knife throwing)
- The mouse is returned to Box A and recoils in PURE TERROR (or maybe just seizes up a little), falsely remembering that Box A was associated with a shock
Obviously, the potential for this new discovery is great: not only could we make mice afraid of boxes, there might be even more locations we can make them fear. The possibilities are near endless!
During the 1950s and '60s at least 57 space exploration flights with dogs were made in the Soviet Union. There is some negativity associated with the program: One dog's name was Z.I.B., which stood for (in Russian) "the replacement for the last dog." Okay, maybe that's not so much negative as it is hilarious.
Still, anyone who doubts Russia's commitment to these dogs' safety hasn't heard of the Vostok K launch in 1960. This explorative launch had two dogs on board. When the craft malfunctioned, the dogs were supposed to be safely ejected. Since this was the Vostok K's maiden launch, it could reasonably be assumed that the ejection device was designed specifically to serve dogs.
However, the ejection device malfunctioned and the ship crashed into the frozen Russian turf. The dogs survived, but they were not safe yet. The Russians had attached a 60-hour self-destruct mechanism to the rocket, which I assume is probably due to information security, but maybe Soviet scientists just like a great plot device. Rescuers trekked through the cold to reach the craft, wrapped the dogs in coats and flew them to Moscow, where they made a full recovery.
Why were dogs the animal of choice for Soviet space exploration? Scientists felt dogs were best suited for long periods of inactivity. I would have probably gone with cows, but I am not a scientist.
In 2012, three dogs passed the New Zealand driving test with a car that was specially modified to be driven by canines. In a publicity stunt to try to get the dogs adopted, the strays were given lessons as part of a program from the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
It sounds silly, but New Zealand is consistently near the top of countries in terms of lowest traffic fatalities. So I decided to look into other dogs who drove cars:
Well never mind. They'll never truly be man's best friend if they can't serve as a designated driver in a pinch.
Computer Brains and Scent-Based Cars
Those of you who have more exotic pets may have been infuriated by the selection of only mainstream pets. Digging your fingernails into your palms hard enough to bleed, you curse my name while your pet tarantula/hedgehog/hookah-smoking caterpillar or whatever cuddles in your lap. For you, I have included this catch-all entry, because you are weird and probably have a deadly pet to throw at me.
A leech became posthumously famous when its brain was turned into a computer. The leech's neurons were given electrical stimuli. By linking individual neurons, scientists were able to make basic calculations.
In flying insect news, a moth was strapped into a special miniature car and its legs were attached to a trackball. When it smells a sex pheromone, its legs move in that direction, which power the car like Fred Flintstone's legs.
The goal is to eventually design a system for detecting explosives at the airport. Because there is no imaginable downside to having a bunch of moths flitter around clothing-filled baggage.
Maybe someday, we can enjoy the sci-fi world in which our pets currently dwell. Until then, I'll just have to drudge through my ordinary human life, sleeping 23 hours a day and eating plain old eucalyptus leaves.