AI-Mediated Control/Care of Optogenetic Pets – Speculative Implications of Transhumanism’s Sapiocentrism
Optogenetics is a technique developed in the early 2000s which allows unprecedented neural control. By genetically engineering neurons to express light-sensitive proteins, an internal beam of light aimed at the target neurons causes them to fire impulses. In doing so, the activity of neuronal circuits can be manipulated, giving us the ability to affect the behavioural (functional) output of animals.
While this technique has revolutionised the field of neuroscience, the videos from these experiments are disturbing and visceral [1]. Recently, the circuit responsible for triggering an animal’s desire to hunt down objects in their visual field was discovered. Experimenters were able to leverage this circuit by attaching a movable ‘carrot on a stick’ to the mice’s head, controlling its movement through a maze. The theorized uses of these optogenetically-controlled mice as land mine detectors conjure dystopian images. However, I began to wonder: can optogenetic neuroprostheses be used to care for pets?
To explore this question, I turned to a speculative design. A critical transhumanist approach was taken in response to the US Transhumanist Party’s current Transhumanist Bill of Rights (TBR), which protects sapient beings from non-consensual experimental research aiming to improve the life of sentient creatures. This leaves all non-sapient creatures open to integration with neuro-prosthetics as long as their use can be justified. Dogs were chosen as the target pet given their non-sapient classification by the TBR.
Current scientific research from optogenetic mice was extrapolated into applications for dogs, resulting in “domestiK9,” a speculative smart home system which extends the care of its AI to optogenetically engineered dogs. Through learned behavioural cues the dog is able to induce a walk protocol, in which the AI controls the dog to the park where they can play together. I argue that a learned behavioural cue implies that the control/care is consensual. Further, I argue that, ironically, some agency is reintroduced to the dog, which previously relied exclusively on humans to “safely” engage with the outside world. In doing so, the use of optogenetics is just a newer, more invasive version of the leash, albeit with an artificial handler. Yet, an underlying repugnance still emanates from the speculative system.
Through this repugnance, “domestiK9” aims to act as a provocation for both Transhumanist ethicists and the general public to consider the implications of the transhumanist sapiocentrism.


Conference paper accepted (2022) - 12th Beyond Humanism Conference

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