When Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence, posed the heady question “Can machines think?”, he inspired generations of computer scientists, philosophers, physicists and regular people to imagine the emergence of silicon-based consciousness, with humanity taking the godlike step of creating a new form of life.
And when science fiction writer Philip K. Dick wrote his seminal 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — the story that would eventually become Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Bladerunner — he wondered what makes us human, and whether an artificial being could possess a soul.
It’s safe to say neither of those techno-prophets were thinking of fledgling AI algorithms, representing the first small steps toward true machine-substrate intelligence, announcing themselves and their usefulness to the world by helping us watch felis catus take a shit.
And yet that’s what the inventors of the LuluPet litter box designed an AI to do, and it’s what software engineer and Youtuber Estefannie did for her cat, Teddy, who’s got a bit of a plastic-eating problem.
“The veterinarian couldn’t tell me how much plastic he ate, and it would cost me over $3,000 [to find out]. So I didn’t do it,” Estefannie explains in a new video. “Instead, the vet gave me the option of watching him go to the bathroom. If he poops and there’s no plastic in his intestines, then he won’t die, and he might actually love me back.”
Estefannie casually described how she wrote a python script, set up a camera and motion sensor, and rigged it to take photos of Teddy doing his business. But, she explained, there was “a tiny problem”: Luna the Cat, aka her cat’s cat.
“This is Luna, this is technically not my cat, this is Teddy-Bear’s cat, and she uses the same litter box as Teddy,” she explained.
For that, she’d need more than a script. She’d have to build a machine learning algorithm to gorge itself on data, cataloguing tens of thousands of photos of Teddy and Luna along with sensory information from the litter box itself, to learn to reliably determine which cat was using the loo.
So Estefannie decided it was a good opportunity to “completely remodel” Teddy’s “bathroom,” including a compartment that would hide the bespoke system monitoring his bowel movements. The system includes sensors, cameras and lights to capture still images of Teddy dropping deuces in infrared, and a live thermal imaging feed of the little guy doing his business. (Teddy’s luxurious new bedroom turned out to be too dark for conventional cameras, thus the pivot to infrared.)
From there, Estefannie manually calculated how long Teddy’s number ones and twos took, and cross-referenced that information with photo timestamps to help determine the exact nature of Teddy’s calls of nature.
When all the data is collected, Estefannie’s custom scripts sends it to an external server, which analyzes the images from each of Teddy’s bathroom visits and renders a verdict on what he’s doing in there.
Finally, Estefannie gets an alert on her smartphone when one of the cats steps into the litterbox, allowing her the option of watching a live feed and, uh, logging all the particulars. The software determines if a number two was successful, and keeps detailed records so Teddy’s human servant can see aberrations over time.
“So now I definitely know when Teddy-Bear is not pooping and needs to go to the hospital,” she said.
I am not making this up.
For her part, Estefannie says she’s not worried about a technological singularity scenario in which angry or insulted machines, newly conscious, exact revenge on humans who made them do unsavory tasks.
“Did I make an AI whose only purpose in life is to watch my cats poop?” Estefannie asked, barely keeping a straight face. “Mmmhmm. Will it come after me when the machines rise? No! Ewww!”