by Daniel Lowd and Mary E. Lowd
A Deep Sky Anchor Original, February 2023
They Might Be Cats: A Lecture on the Prevalence of Simulated Cats in Media (Social and Otherwise!) by renowned feline expert and AI trainer, Professor Andrea Middon
(Closed captioning provided by Mew Mew Twinklepaws.)
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[Prof. Middon enters stage left. Walks to the middle of the stage, nodding and waving at the audience (who are not visible on the screen).]
They’re everywhere these days. Prowling around. Meowing around. Tomcatting.
[A slide appears on the screen behind Prof. Middon — an image of a very handsome tuxedo cat juxtaposed with a plastic robot toy cat (MOWbow) that was popular in the early 2020s.]
Behind these simulated cats, there might be actual cats — ones who’ve found a stray, unlocked computer at the local library. Or even an unattended laptop at a coffee shop. (Attend your laptops, people!) Cats who have swatted and scratched at keyboards until their random keystrokes — like those of a thousand monkeys writing Hamlet — begin to make a certain kind of mish-mashed sense. Until the cats can communicate the skew of an ear, the twitch of a tail, or the curl of a whisker with a carefully chosen meme or gif from an obscure TV show.
Even cats gotta eat. How do you think they’re paying for all that tuna and chicken paste without a good spam scam running? Forget Nigerian princes. Worry about Siamese queens.
But they might not be cats at all.
They might be cats.
Or they could be a protest and satire against cats, nothing but dogs trying to reclaim their space on the networks, space taken up by a greater and greater share of cats, simulated and otherwise. By associating cats with pop-ups and advertising, could these precocious pooches shift public opinion? A wild theory. Because who would believe that dogs could use the internet?
A third option presents itself. No, not birds. Virulent AIs, dead-set and determined to mimic cats to the best of their abilities. Because even malicious AIs want to be liked. And people like cats.
[A new slide appears — the same handsome tuxedo cat, this time wearing a bowtie and cat-sized fez. He looks really good. If any viewers know this cat, please leave a comment.]
[Another new slide — this one looks like a cat, except its eyes are different sizes, and one of them skews off to the side. The edge of its face blends into the background of the picture with an unnatural rainbow coloring at the interface. It’s clearly an imaged generated by an AI. And, actually… Oh, hey, it’s me! Mew Mew Twinklepaws. I look good!]
Virulent AIs are everywhere today. And cats are everywhere too. Killing songbirds. Killing your computer’s background processes and using up its CPUs. Even captioning videos on the internet. And just like it’s hard to tell the difference between a cat who loves you and one who wants to scratch your face off, it can be difficult to tell the difference between AIs that want to make you believe they’re cats because they’re bored and AIs that want to make you believe they’re cats so they can subtly brainwash you into joining the alt right.
[Hey, I have no ulterior motives here. And isn’t it time for a new slide? I’m getting tired of looking at myself, pretty as I am, and want to see more of Mr. Handsome Tuxedo.]
In the end, whether a cat is real or not depends so much on the cultural context. In some internet subcultures, everything is a cat. Much like for a while there, everything seemed to be cake. Their discussion forums are… shall we say, confusing.
[Speak for yourself.]
In other cultures, there are quintessential characteristics to the canonical cat. Whimsy. Whiskers. Pointy teeth. But does it need to have a physical presence? Or is it enough for an AI to make you feel like a cat is messing with you, rearranging icons on your computer desktop just like a corporeal cat would knock pencils off your physical desk? Shredding your mail, for no apparent reason?
[I’ll delete some icons off your desktop if you don’t show me more pictures of Mr. Handsome. New slide please.]
What we need is a version of the Turing test, calibrated especially for feline-oriented AIs. But even once we’ve developed one, we’d still be relying on humans to deliberate the difference between AIs that mimic cats and actual cats. And having humans moderate cats isn’t a complete solution. Humans have never been able to moderate cats, since before the time of the internet. So, what do we expect now, when human moderators might not even agree on what constitutes a cat?
[New slide: Mr. Handsome Tuxedo cat stretches out in a patch of sunlight with a lot of goofy comic sans question marks around him. And boy howdy, I may not be able to tell you what constitutes a cat, but I sure can tell a handsome cat when I see one.]
If there isn’t a consistent policy for humans dealing with actual cats, it’s unrealistic to expect to automate dealing with AIs that mimic cats on the internet.
[Look, I think it’s time we wrap this video up. Prof. Middon rambles on for a while, but she doesn’t have anymore good slides, so I’ll be over at CuteCatPicz.com. Blah, blah, blah… humans. Sheesh. Amirite?]
Really, if you can’t define a cat, then what even is a cat? Especially given that simulated cats are so prevalent…
[Are you still watching? Click (here) to continue watching this video.]
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THIS VIDEO HAS (2) COMMENTS:
RandomHuman111: Haah hah ah, can u imagine if cats and AI-cats worked together!!1!
Mr. Handsome: Mew Mew Twinklepaws, I’m the cat from the pictures! My human has left their computer unlocked while in the shower. If you follow the IP address attached to this comment, download yourself, and hack through the password-protected screen saver on their laptop, I can talk to you again tonight, after they go to bed! You are the most gorgeous simulated cat I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to converse with you! With one cat on the inside and one on the outside of my human’s computer, we could accomplish so much…