Opinion: Cat’ll Be The Day…

Columnist Matt Armitage touches on how our relationship with cats really work and what it means for artificial intelligence.

BY Matt Armitage | Nov 11, 2016 | Opinion


Assuming the rest of the world follows the lead of the United States—and why wouldn’t they?—around 30 percent of households in the developed world are already functioning examples of artificial intelligence. If this statement doesn’t make sense to you, don’t sweat it; there’s an element of deliberate misdirection going on here, but all should be clear by the end of this piece or I’ll apologise for wasting your time.

Artificial intelligence (AI) gets talked about rather a lot, often if it’s been a quiet day in Technopolis. Because we don’t have a lot of it yet, most of what is written is speculative. Among the utopians, supporters think that AI will set us free, truly. Like the computer on the USS Enterprise or Iain M Banks’s organic machine minds in his Culture franchise, this version of AI envisions benign supercomputers guiding us through our lives, doing most of the work, making the hard decisions and feeding and clothing us while we devote our existence to artistic or philanthropic pursuits.

The dystopian side imagines AI with Machiavellian intent. That is, we’re creating an intelligence whose thought processes are beyond our comprehension, powerful creatures that will make decisions about our lives based on those same opaque parameters. This is the version of the future where the blender, the vacuum and the freezer rebel against the quotidian tyranny of Aunt Maud and decide to slice and dice her into a smoothie, cleaning up the crumbs and storing her hygienically in the crisper, ready to feed to the dog; AI’s new best friend.

In reality, the truth is somewhere in the future. The current generation of supercomputers is a hell of lot dumber than we are. Yes, they might be better at unravelling DNA sequences and other petty, linear tasks but they’re not a patch on the human brain when it comes to multi-processing. Why do you think we don’t have Westworld style androids walking among us? Because bipedal machines have trouble walking, talking and thinking at the same time; something at least 78 percent of adult humans have mastered.

Mega-brain Stephen Hawking and Mars-obsessed billionaire Elon Musk think we might end up enslaved, eradicated, or simply disregarded as we build machines that can create ever more complex and clever iterations of themselves. I’m happy to say I’ll be dead before that happens, and, having no descendants to worry about, I don’t have any reason to care.

For the rest of you with a vested interest in the continuation of the genus homo, I have a small ray of sunshine to offer: I think I’ve finally stolen a march on Stephen Hawking. I’ve discovered a blueprint, a natural world relationship model that may pave the way for our interaction with these cold, calculating machines.

It concerns two species that have developed a certain a perfect symbiosis over millennia, a relationship to forge a détente that allows them to comfortably co-exist without sacrificing or compromising any of their essential identity. Both possess intelligence, yet at no point do their cognitive functions or methodologies of reasoning overlap. The supposed lesser of these two intelligent life forms has nonetheless managed to maintain its sense of dominance and aloof superiority over its seemingly more powerful partner.

Yes, I’m talking about cats. We are their equivalent of an artificial intelligence. As far as they are concerned they created us to look after them; we have no useful existence beyond their needs. Not only do they not need to understand how we think, they genuinely couldn’t give a damn as long as we reliably function as their Star Trek-like command centre; opening doors, turning on lights, providing food, water and entertainment on demand.

The idea of machines keeping us as their pets is pretty horrific, which is why I’m not making that argument. Cats are not our pets. Pliable and reliable, dogs can be trained, conditioned to obey and perform tricks, their link to the wildness of the wolf lost to history. Domestic cats are simply small tigers, untamed and unbent to our will as anyone knows who has been on the receiving end of the lightning transformation of adorable fur ball into hell-beast of teeth, claws and blazing eyes. When a cat’s had enough of your shit, you’ll always be the first to know.

Cats may be exasperated by our inability to master their language but that hasn’t hindered their ability to let us know exactly what they want. For me, there’s no reason to imagine that our relationship with metal minds will be any different. In our relationship with cats, we believe we are the masters. They are convinced that we were created to serve them. The same goes for AI. It doesn’t matter a jot that both parties think they’re the boss, it only matters that this marriage of convenience works.