Finally, a helping hand for bored lonely chickens

Singapore researchers just showed a Montreal conference their “Poultry.Internet” system whereby you can give your pet chicken an intercontinental cyberhug. O Brave New World, that hath such gadgets in it. At last we can begin to live. Where does one even begin? I suppose by saying chickens are common household pets in Southeast Asia. It’s not as strange as it sounds (how could it be?). I mean, the average cat’s occasional gift of a damp dead mouse does less for your breakfast options than a steady supply of fresh delicious eggs. And what’s with pet snakes? True, a chicken that bounds into your lap carrying your slippers if you ever return from business travelling awaits further cybernetic advances. But hey, a “Poultry.Internet” prototype is here now. Where was this in the science fiction from my teens?

One lingering annoyance is you have to travel with a wireless-enabled chicken doll, which might raise eyebrows at customs. The chickens, pending upgrades, also have to wear special jackets (or, for penguin fanciers, tuxedos), creating an opening for pettifoggers to suggest if someone has to be there to dress the chicken, they could just pet it at the same time. Also, why not program in a petting sequence so the jacket periodically strokes the bird without the tedium of you having to not be there?

Now, while fetishists towel their damp brows, I should note that, according to the Citizen story, chickens deprived of human contact lay fewer eggs and experience more stress. And who wants tense chickens? Moreover, “Despite the possible confusion of being stroked by a disembodied hand,” a fleet of test chickens spent 73 per cent of their time in the area where they got cyber-petted after a month to figure it out. Which isn’t too bad given that chickens are, I’m led to believe, so dim that, frankly, even confusing one strikes me as a daunting task.

Not so with dogs. The makers of “Poultry.Internet” say a production model might cost $100. And what price happy chickens? But a similar system for more intelligent animals would also require two-way web-cams and voice capability so your dog wouldn’t get freaked out by this technology. Dogs are smart. So smart they’d rather go for a real walk.

Some cynics might suggest we are running out of useful things to invent. Maybe further advances in technology aren’t really going to save our economies, our societies and our souls. But just when a satirist is working up a good head of ridicule, along comes a practical use. Such a system would help handlers guide rescue dogs into tight spots, or let kids with allergies pat animals. (Technology described in another story, to let people monitor sonar readings with their tongues, holds promise not just for the military but also the blind. And, I say, youths deafened by years of listening to iPods instead of birds and conversation, who can in their declining 30s taste whatever ghastly music is popular then.) But just when you’re prepared to drop the sarcasm the inventors add that another advantage is it would let people interact with dangerous animals in zoos. When I was a boy the wonders of nature didn’t include it being OK to pat a crocodile in an electric shirt provided you did it online.

Then there’s their proposed “Pyjama.Internet” so you can hug kids you’re too busy travelling the world to visit. With the added wrinkle (or not, given advanced fabrics) of a GPS link to let Interpyjama change colour as you get closer to home. You can’t buy that kind of memory. And if they change back again as your plane whooshes right past overhead on your way to another technology conference, the resulting trauma could generate a lucrative modern dysfunctional autobiographical novel. So you can’t really lose.

Not even your luggage, thanks to a Rhode Island inventor’s “Fido Luggage” combining voice-recognition technology with remote control so it heels on command. Ah, the faithful suitcase, bounding down the ramp and into your lap carrying your slippers. Curiously, the Globe and Mail’s Social Studies says Fido Luggage has received hostile feedback online, including “Consider what would happen if everyone had one of these.” I think that would be great. While waiting for your flight you could stage mass impromptu luggage demolition derbies right there in the departure lounge.

Another critical comment was, “Man, when the machines rise up to destroy us, it’s going to be pretty embarrassing to get killed by your luggage.” Would you prefer some unusually clever chicken managing to turn “Poultry.Internet” on you and pecking you to death remotely in your hotel room in revenge for you never being home?

Another martyr to the march of science. Though the resulting video would be a huge hit in the vlogosphere. Especially with bored lonely chickens.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson