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Column: Technology advances mean dog days over?

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Ever since I heard my human talking about the article, I have had mixed feelings. On the one paw, I think it might be useful for him to know just what it is like to be one of us. On the other paw, I would hate for him to get any ideas about changing the comfortable living arrangements we have here at home. On yet another paw, if this avatar thing were to become standard practice for humans, the implications for animals would be enormous.

Sydney the dog here. Recently, I overheard my human discussing with his mate — my other human — an interview he had read on the Internet.

Apparently, Stanford University has a “Virtual Human Interaction Lab” where something called “Avatar Studies,” are conducted. One of the researchers, cognitive psychologist and associate professor Jeremy Bailenson, was describing an experiment where humans become “virtual cows.”

Balienson explained to Lynn Rossetto Kasper of NPR’s Splendid Table what happens during the cow experiment. First, lights are placed on the head, back and hands of the subject. Cameras track the lights to show movements, and speakers around the room give the impression of sounds moving as the subject does. Next, a head-mounted display is placed so that the subject sees a virtual reality. The virtual cow moves around the room on hands and knees, drinks water from a trough, munches on a pile of hay and performs other cow-like behaviors.

Then things get a little weird — as if they weren’t already. The virtual cow gets lightly nudged with a cattle prod and poked in the side with a stick as it is persuaded to move from one place to another. After 10 minutes or so, the virtual cow is told it is time to go to the slaughterhouse and is urged over toward a truck which is beeping as it slowly backs up. At this point, the experiment is over. Whew. Just in time.

Bailenson says the researchers are studying empathy. He and his group have been experimenting for 10 years on “whether you can make somebody feel more empathy for another if you have them walk a mile in the shoes of their avatar.” Earlier studies had college-age students occupying avatars of the elderly as well as experiments looking at empathy as it relates to race and gender. The virtual cow study was the first experiment using avatars of another species.

As my two humans were discussing this, the male declared, “I’m not sure about a cow, but wouldn’t it be interesting to inhabit the avatar of a dog? Sydney, for example. What a life he has. He sleeps most of the day. He chases squirrels and digs holes then sleeps some more. His internal clock is more accurate than a satellite when it’s dinner time. He gets a bowl of food placed before him by obedient humans then sleeps after dinner until it is time to go to bed. Then we wait at the door until he decides he is done with his business at which time he saunters back inside for a good night’s sleep. Where do I sign up for that experiment?”

My human exaggerates, but I admit I have a pretty good life. I know not all animals are as lucky. Wild animals live according to the dictates of brute Nature, of course, but the proper care of domesticated animals is the responsibility of human beings. Maybe these avatar experiments could do some good if it would cause humans to be more aware, more empathetic to us “lesser creatures” (as you humans like to say) as we live out our lives.

I can understand how my human would want to experience a dog’s life. What creature wouldn’t? Frankly though, I have no desire to become a human, even a virtual one. Traffic, taxes, deadlines, debts, fame, finances, things and more things? No, thanks. I’d rather chase squirrels than money or status.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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