Saturday, 18 April 2015

Perfect Pets

I was listening to a radio discussion about the latest iteration of the film Bladerunner the other day. At the time I saw the film - ie when it first came out - I thought it was mainly a metaphor for "the human condition". That is, the desire of the replicants for a longer lifespan was really a human desire in mechanical clothing.

What I didn't foresee all those years ago was that, within my lifetime, conditions anywhere in my world might begin to mirror those in the film. A trip to Shanghai cured me of any illusions on that score. Or, to put it another way, if you want to know what Shanghai's like, watch Bladerunner..

And, while elsewhere urban environments haven't quite reached the constant warm rain and overwhelmingly dense population stage, slowly but surely the first generation of pre-replicants have been creeping into our lives. No, I know we haven't got things that are indistinguishable from humans yet, but we have got gadgets that it is very easy to anthropomorphise, and some of us at least are already starting to get in a muddle about the dividing line between machine and cuddly little animate being.

The first time I realised this was when those funny round vacuum cleaners that speed about people's houses first appeared. As soon as I saw them for sale, I found them appealing. The only reason I didn't buy one was that I was told they can't cope with old rugs - the fringes make them miserable, apparently. However, I wasn't surprised when I read that people who do buy them start to grow as attached to them as if they were a family pet. When they break down, their owners take them back to the shops they bought them from but, when offered a new replacement, they often get upset. They don't want a lovely shiny thing in a box out the back; they want the one that's part of the family. "No, no, you've got to fix our one", they cry, "he's special".

Which sounds a bit silly, until you start to see how sweet and pliant robots can be.

Or possibly I'm just unusually susceptible to the charms of small machines. I certainly have lost my heart to another example of the genus, which I see from time to time in the big park near my house.

The park contains a lake and around the lake are sloping lawns that often need cutting. Rather than a team of men with noisy mowers, the local authorities have chosen a robotic machine for the job. It rushes up and down the grass with what I regard as a touching eagerness. When it has finished its tasks, it scampers back to its master's side. Without waiting for any kind of reward, it manoeuvres itself into the correct position and trundles obediently up a ramp and into the trailer its been brought to the park in. You can see the man in charge finds it extremely hard to restrain himself from giving it a grateful pat.

Here is a video of the dear little thing at work. It comes from the machine's makers - who are a company called Dvorak, so I assume they are very clever Czechs or Slovaks - and it doesn't quite capture the machine's cuteness, (the machine, by the way, is called a Spider). All the same, if you watch it, it will give you a faint hint of its charm:

So. while someone in my house has just got themselves a small dog, I am not yearning for anything fluffy. Why would I, when I could have a Spider. Like a dog, a Spider comes when you call it. Unlike a dog it doesn't demand food or walks and there is no need to arrange for it be looked after when you decide to go away overnight or for a weekend.


  1. Over Here, the radio astronomers are urging FCC not let a thousand mowers bloom, thinking that the control channels for the robotic lawnmowers will interfere with their research:

    I just mowed our lawn for the second time this year. Yes, it is noisy--though there have long been electric lawn mowers available. But I don't much begrudge the time. Also, does the electric mower you saw catch the grass?

    1. You and your pesky questions. I'll check next time I see it.

  2. AND it eliminates the need for all that pesky walking while cutting grass! I'll take one! No -- THREE!!!

    1. If only I had the franchise, you'd be making me rich