For thousands of years, the bond between people and their dogs remained unshakably strong. But with machines evolving faster than either species can keep up with, it’s not hard to imagine that man and his best friend could one day face an existential crisis forewarned by science fiction.
Will robots replace humans in the workforce and then go on to supplant dogs as our preferred four-legged companions?
Humanity’s longtime fear of being replaced by tech reached a fever pitch recently as AI such as ChatGPT and Lensa went viral for generating surprisingly competent essays, stories, artwork, coding and even medical diagnoses through machine learning. But with increasing interest in Boston Dynamics’ robot dog Spot — which may one day also incorporate AI — we might not be the only ones who need to worry about that dystopian future.
The Times brought Spot to the Wallis Annenberg PetSpace, a pet adoption and education center in Playa Vista that partners with Los Angeles County shelters, for a series of dogged challenges. By pinning canine versus machine, we set out in jest to determine who would win in a competition for Goodest Boy: roughly $74,000 worth of robotics, or a handful of affordable rescue pups.
Tasks ranged from basic commands like “come” and “give paw,” to more complex dogly duties like comforting humans and modeling cute accessories. Though our trials do not capture the totality of a dog’s worth, we hoped to give both robot and canine a fair shake. However, I’d be remiss to not mention a conflict of interest for this competition judge and author: One of the canine contestants — 8-year-old pitbull mix Dax — is my own fur child, or what some might consider a “nepotism baby.”
The cards may seem stacked against a 72-pound machine that produced enough nightmare fuel to inspire its own chilling “Black Mirror” episode and stoked debate over its potential use by police departments. But the final results proved more mixed than anticipated.
When it came to emotional support, for example, recently adopted husky Judy did not appear convinced by the display of distress. After some sniffing to confirm the weeping human was not in fact crying pieces of beef jerky, Judy left me to my melodrama. Her mere presence, however, was a joy. As an unfeeling hunk of metal that could unsettle even the most dedicated tech utopian, though, Spot never had a chance.
However, research suggests that toy robot companions like Golden Pup, Joy for All and MiRo-E may provide therapeutic benefits to children and the elderly. Though Spot is an industrial robot, Boston Dynamics may develop a consumer-facing variant. For now, Spot is mainly marketed as a tool to inspect construction sites, mines, hazardous packages, and oil and gas facilities. The Times is evaluating if the robot dog could be used to capture reporting footage in hard-to-reach areas.
Those aren’t Spot’s only major advantages. Spot wiped the floor (metaphorically speaking) in the cleanup trial. Meanwhile, Dax proudly produced a hefty load of excrement before promptly zooming away to leave his human with the unpleasant task of using a communal pooper scooper. In the swimming competition however, the handsome lab mix Beau blew Spot out of the water with his infectiously playful antics in the kiddie pool. To its credit, Spot did demonstrate an impressive capacity to get wet without needing to then be put in a bag of rice overnight to recover like your standard cellphone.
Surprisingly, Spot struggled to win any of the basic command challenges when compared with its mammalian counterparts.
“Give paw” was technically a draw. But recently adopted beagle mix Sweetie lived up to her name with a single valiant effort, before becoming too camera-shy and forgetting every trick she’s ever learned. Luckily for both sides, “come” is the far more important command anyway. As a robot specifically built for agile mobility and lacking the free will to do anything other than what its program and human operator dictate, Spot seemed set up for success. But despite having the coordination of an awkward teen boy, four left paws and a 15-second attention span, Dax won this round thanks to his speedy exuberance.
The most indisputable win came courtesy of Magdy, the 54-pound bulldog mix and belly rub enthusiast. By sporting a pink bandanna with all her goblin-like poise, Magdy secured the competition for dogkind in one fell swoop.
So despite some surprise underdog upsets from Spot, the real dogs unequivocally win the battle for Goodest Boy. They might not have technically “won” every round. But often, we love our pets because of their relatable flaws and quirks. They don’t need to be perfect to win our hearts. Suggesting otherwise would be “an insult to life itself,” to quote legendary Studio Ghibli head Hayao Miyazaki’s horrified response to AI animation.
At this point, the fear of having our roles in society totally replaced by robots — whether they’re in human or canine form — is driven more by tech’s potential than current capabilities. Perhaps we may even develop a bond with said robots through a mutually beneficial relationship, which is not unlike how dogs were domesticated centuries ago.
Personally, though, I’m going to need a couple more thousands of years before I feel comfortable letting Spot curl up on the bed with me.
To learn more about adopting a dog from Wallis Annenberg PetSpace, visit its website. You can also adopt pets from Los Angeles County and city animal shelters.
Source: LA Times