Natalie Jerminjenko’s Sniffer Dogs is a playful exploration of intelligence, agency and avatars. At the heart of the project is an inversion – the domestic face of artificial intelligence, exemplified by the recent craze for robotic dog toys, is repurposed for a more sinister task – sniffing out radiation levels in the landscape. Jerminjenko reprograms the toys with a custom chipset and radiation sensor implanted in the dog’s nose. The dog then ‘sniffs’ the air for radiation, following the scent and mapping radioactivity levels as it walks.
The contrast of these cute robot toys with their grim nuclear task gives a frisson of perverse glee. Jerminjenko uses the inbuilt system of behaviours programmed by the toy manufacturer, so the dog wags its tail and perfroms a little dance whenever it senses radioactive material. But perhaps there is an even darker concept lurking underneath. Jerimenjenko suggests in her supporting material that these domestic robot dogs have had ulterior motives all along, killing their time barking and playing with bones and smiling at their owners while secretly awaiting further instructions.
This suggests a new spin on the issue of technological agency – instead of the domesticated avatar, we have the double agent. Most technological futurology see agents as benign, as obedient slaves who only have our best interests at heart. Jerminjenko playfully suggests that a dark heart always exists, even behind the most domesticated technologies. If cute robotic dogs harbour secret alter egos, who knows what ulterior motives lie behind your PC screen, or your mobile phone?
In Bruce Sterling’s short story ‘Maneki Neko’, a similarly domestic icon – the Maneki Neko, a Japanese good luck item in the shape of a cat – is the icon for an intelligent social network co-ordinated by ‘Pokkecons’ – PDA style ‘pocket controllers’. These devices organise their owners lives around a gift economy of seemingly random gestures. Your Pokkecon might order you to buy an extra coffee and hand it to a stranger in the street, then when you return home you find a parcel has been delivered containing your favourite type of sweet. These daily activities are seen as benign to people who have woven the pokkecon into their everyday lives, but a visiting American executive who doesn’t engage with the system find herself under attack, like a foreign agent rejected by its host:
“’I know very well what this is. I’m under attack. I haven’t had a moment’s peace since I broke that network. Stuff just happens to me now. Bad stuff. Swarms of it. It’s never anything you can touch, though. Nothing you can prove in a court of law. I sit in chairs, and somebody’s left a piece of gum there. I get free pizzas, but they’re not the kind of pizzas I like. Little kids spit on my sidewalk. Old women in walkers get in front of me whenever I need to hurry.
‘My toilets don’t flush. My letters get lost in the mail. When I walk by cars, their theft alarms go off. And strangers stare at me. It’s always little things. Lots of little tiny things, but they never, ever stop. I’m up against something that is very very big, and very very patient. And it knows all about me. And it’s got a million arms and legs. And all those arms and legs are people’.”
The Pokkecon initially seems like a benign agent for goodwill, but by the end of the story, it’s more like a shadowy double agent for an immoral underworld, as if the Yakusa or Mafia had invented an IM client. Unlike the perfect intelligent agent who understands your every need so well that you don’t need to think or do anything anymore, the double agent is a threat – a shadow lurking around every corner. A double agent isn’t looking out for you, but instead gives you the eerie feeling that you are being watched, making you look over your shoulder. In their benign forms, intelligent agents exist solely to smooth your path towards a technologically seamless future. Its sinister twin, the double agent, is evidence of a complex past returning to haunt you – an uncanny doppelganger from a future that is really a half-remembered, re-engineered past.
The double agent also has an existential literary cousin in the private eye – an agent who has no life except as lived through others. Constantly trying to make sense out of an incomplete picture, the private eye is an imperfect avatar, always a few clues short of the whole story. In the classic gum shoe novels of Raymond Chandler, this anti hero is always getting in the way rather than getting to the truth, getting implemented in the crime and led down dark alleys. How much more interesting are these double agents compared to the dumb shiny world of the intelligent agents? The double agent recognises that intelligence can never be perfect, and those who hold intelligence cast a malign, powerful shadow. After all, even the best, most discrete butler always keeps a few too many of his master’s secrets.
The intelligence we are building into our technological landscapes will be cast with these same dark shadows, so lets build infrastructures that recognises that instead of hiding it beneath an illusory surface of perfection. We need to have more cute robotic dogs turned into Geiger counters. Interactive Barney needs a double life uncovering conspiracy theories instead of reading saccharine-coated bedtime stories. Lets build intelligent avatars that remind us, not of upcoming commitments, but of our past mistakes. We always think we can make the future better, cleaner, and brighter, but we never quite get there. By setting our targets lower, we might achieve something more complex, unpredictable, and truer to our own dystopian lives.