[Paleopsych] Wired News: Augmenting the Animal Kingdom
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Thu May 5 16:26:22 UTC 2005
Augmenting the Animal Kingdom
By Lakshmi Sandhana
02:00 AM May. 03, 2005 PT
Natural evolution has produced the eye, butterfly wings and other
wonders that would put any inventor to shame. But who's to say
evolution couldn't be improved with the help of a little technology?
So argues James Auger in his controversial and sometimes unsettling
book, Augmented Animals. A designer and former research associate with
MIT Media Lab Europe, Auger envisions animals, birds, reptiles and
even fish becoming appreciative techno-geeks, using specially
engineered gadgets to help them overcome their evolutionary
shortcomings, promote their chances of survival or just simply lead
easier and more comfortable lives.
On tap for the future: Rodents zooming around with night-vision
survival goggles, squirrels hoarding nuts using GPS locators and fish
armed with metal detectors to avoid the angler's hook.
Auger's current ambitions are relatively modest. He's developing a LED
light that aims to translate tail wagging into plain English. The
device fits on a dog's tail, and flashes text messages when the tail
waves through the air. He plans to have a working product on display
at Harrods in London by September.
"I'm serious about the ideas behind the products," says Auger. "I
think that the fact that some of them could be realized means that as
concepts they tread the scary line between fact and fiction and
therefore are taken a little more seriously. If one person in a
hundred is inspired to think about the philosophical issues behind the
ideas and the other 99 read it like Calvin and Hobbs, I'd consider
that a success."
Auger admits that his ideas are mostly conceptual in regard to animals
living in the wild. But for tame and domesticated companions, some may
not be so far-fetched. For example, a bird cage could be built using
existing aerodynamic testing technology that might give captive birds
the illusion of long-distance flight. And odor respirators could
filter out undesirable smells for dogs and other animals with highly
developed olfactory senses.
Technology augmentations have already been tried in agribusiness,
where an animal's happiness can lead directly to bigger profits.
A few years ago, farm researchers tried fitting hens with red
plastic contact lenses to reduce aggression caused by tight caging and
overcrowding. The idea was quickly dropped when it was found to
cause more problems than it solved.
Future technologies, though, could yield fruit. For example, some
theorists have floated a Matrix-like scenario that would use direct
stimulation of the brain to fool livestock about the reality of their
"To offset the cruelty of factory-farming, routine implants of smart
microchips in the pleasure centers may be feasible," says David
Pearce, associate editor of the Journal of Evolution and
Technology. "Since there is no physiological tolerance to pure
pleasure, factory-farmed animals could lead a lifetime of pure bliss
instead of misery. Unnatural? Yes, but so is factory farming. Immoral?
No, certainly not compared to the terrible suffering we inflict on
factory-farmed animals today."
Not everyone agrees that fitting animals with invasive and
experimental gadgetry is desirable, or even ethical.
Jeffrey R. Harrow, author of the The Harrow Technology Report
doesn't think the idea of augmenting animals is a good one.
"Any time we mess with nature's evolutionary process we run the very
real risk of changing things for the worse since we have very limited
scope in determining the longer term results," Harrow says. "With the
possible exception of endangered species and probably not even those
because our modifications would by definition change the species, we
must be exceedingly careful or we might change our biosphere in ways
later generations might abhor."
If the debate over animal augmentation is still in its infancy, it
will likely only grow along with advances in technology. Ultimately,
some theorists argue, humans may have to decide whether they have a
moral duty to help animals cross the divide that separates the species
by giving them the ability to acquire higher mental functions -- a
theme explored in apocalyptic films such as Planet of the Apes and The
Day of the Dolphin.
"With children, the insane and the demented we are obliged, when we
can, to help these 'disabled citizens' to achieve or regain their full
self-determination," says Dr. James J. Hughes, executive director
of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and author
of Citizen Cyborg. "We have the same responsibility to enhance the
intelligence and communication abilities of great apes, and possibly
also of dolphins and elephants, when we have the means to do so. Once
they are sufficiently enhanced, they can make decisions for
themselves, including removing their augmentation."
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