The infamous OwlKitty has returned to the big screen, this time flying wing alongside Tom Cruise’s Maverick in a meowified version of Top Gun.
OwlKitty’s patient humans are known for meticulously filming their beloved black cat in front of green screens and inserting the cute moggie into various movies and TV shows, from Jurassic Park to Titanic, Home Alone and even Netflix’s The Witcher.
OwlKitty’s female, so technically she’s Cruise’s wingwoman, and we see her in the cockpit of an F-18 Super Hornet, with Cruise getting a dressing down by the admiralty, and in the iconic beach volleyball scene.
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!”
It’s safe to say kitty isn’t going outside any time soon.
Since we’ve been debating the merits of indoor vs outdoor cats here on Pain In The Bud, perhaps we’ve stumbled on the easiest way to turn outdoor roamers into indoor cuddlers — just invite a bear to take a sniff around your front lawn and make sure your feline friend has a front row seat.
This cat’s expression says it all the first time he sees a bear:
“Oh my God, look at his face!” kitty’s human whispers before comforting the little guy with some strokes on his furry head to let him know all is well and he isn’t in danger.
I’m pretty sure Buddy wouldn’t last as long as this cat. He’d totally kick the bear’s ass and assert dominion over his territory run and hide under the bed, then meow to me in an hour or two to see if it’s safe to come out.
There’s been so much buzz about Stray, so many news stories, memes and people talking about it, that I’m probably not alone in feeling like I’m watching a TV series an episode at a time while most people binged it in a day or two.
But that’s not how I play, and it’s not how most game developers want players to experience their stories. Modern games, especially games like Stray with their bespoke environments and unique encounters, are built to immerse players in their worlds. The entire point of video games is the interactivity, the choices and agency of the players. They’re designed so when you choose to wander off the beaten path or take a few moments to linger over something visually impressive, the experience is rewarding.
Maybe you’ll find a rare item, a compelling vista, a secret passage or a funny sign. The point is, there’s incentive to look deeper. It gives games a feeling of possibility and the thrill of the undiscovered.
These stories are not meant to be passive experiences, nor are they meant to be devoured. I won’t be speed running through this mysterious alternate future version of Hong Kong. The journey is the entire point.
Picking up where we left off, the Good Boy (that’s what I’m calling him, for now at least) must learn to navigate this new and potentially dangerous urban environment, and he must do so with a feline’s skill set.
There are no opposable thumbs here. If our hero needs to move an object, he’s got to carry it in his mouth like a mom cat does with her kittens. If he needs to move a barrel, he’s got to get inside and run like a hamster in a wheel to propel it forward. If he needs to stop a fan’s blades from spinning so he can get through a window, he’s got to drop or swipe something into the blades to jam them up.
Appropriately, one of the main mechanisms for making new routes is knocking things over. Knock over a piece of plywood and Good Boy has a bridge. Knock over a can or a box at just the right angle to flip a switch and so on.
Good Boy meanders through a seemingly abandoned Kowloon City, padding through quiet streets and taking shortcuts through empty flats. There’s power, the city is illuminated by incandescent lights, neon and the glow of TV sets indoors, so someone must be around.
Our feline hero soon learns new tenants have moved in, and they’re not friendly. I’m not sure what they’re called, and the game doesn’t name them, but Kowloon is now home to swarming, artificial tribble-like creatures that attack Good Boy on sight and can take him down if he doesn’t run and shake off any enemies who manage to latch onto him. (Side note: I do not like dying in this game. What did Good Boy ever do to deserve being attacked?)
The first encounter with these enemies turns into a twisting chase through dimly-lit alleys, crumbling staircases and tight streets. Good Boy manages to evade the evil robot tribbles and finds sanctuary in a secure flat.
Once he attends to his needs, which include some carpet scratching and rehydrating, he’s contacted by a machine who uses TVs, computer monitors and other electronics in the apartment to communicate with the tabby.
The machine directs the cat through a few simple tasks necessary to free him, then meets Good Boy in the flesh.
The bot, a palm-size drone named B-12, is damaged and his memory is corrupted. He’s as lost and confused as Good Boy is, and he proposes a partnership. Good Boy, who sees the value in a drone who can open locks, translate signs and communicate with others, agrees. B-12 outfits his new feline friend with a harness that allows him to dock on the kitty’s back, then he saddles up and the new teammates venture forth.
For the first time, the protagonist is able to glean real information about his environment and has a sense of direction. He also gets to travel by makeshift ziplines, hopping into buckets hanging from the city’s ubiquitous wires.
Next episode: Our duo fights back! Same cat time, same cat channel.
After I committed the unspeakable crime of posting a story about amazing birds here on Pain In the Bud, Buddy himself took time out of his busy napping and eating schedule to educate me on feline abilities.
Cats can in fact dance, the little guy told me. As evidence, he presented the glorious Youtube rendition of Ievan Polkka, featuring blind Turkish singer Bilal Göregen passionately performing a Finnish folk song while a cat vibes to it in the foreground.
The cat comes in at around the 55 second mark, but you’ll want to watch the whole magnificent video. Thanks, Buddy, for correcting me, and I humbly apologize for ever doubting the many talents of your people.