I made a small joke once to a jogger about being able to outrun guard dogs and he didn't think it funny at all: a friend of his had been set upon in the park by a couple of labradors which pulled over their elderly lady owner, bounded after the runner and set about castrating him. Fortunately they did not complete the job, but the other thing that made the story memorable was that the owner, when she finally pulled them off and set about helping and apologising to the bleeding victim, said: "They never usually do that!" The moral, I think, is that owning dogs damages the brain as much as being chewed by them can damage other organs.
Virtual dogs can't do much physical damage: eye strain, RSI, a touch of raised blood pressure when my wife finds they've done a screensaver all over her half of the computer; but the effect they have had on my daughter's mind is extraordinary. I bought Rosie Dogz 3 as a stocking-filler at Christmas. The zed in these names is important and probably trademarked. They are part of a line of Petz, which play with Treatz and zo on. Some years ago she had played with Catz 1 for a while, and then had grown bored. But technology has taken huge strides since then, and Dogz 3 is carefully designed to be very much more addictive.
The Dogz react in vaguely predictable ways to their owners' behaviour. They like to be petted, fed, watered and given things to play with on screen. The box solemnly assures my daughter that they must be played with every day; otherwise they start to pine. This means that the first thing she does on returning from school is to switch on her Dogz and play with them for a while, keeping up a plangent running commentary. The Dogz, like all the best dolls, can be dressed up. They can also breed. That is where the web comes in.
The Dogz are not unduly realistic: they lack normal attributes, such as genitals. Instead, the males have blue name tags and the females have pink ones. To encourage them to breed, they have to be placed in a pen together while the owner chooses music to play to them. It is an elegant and subtle addition that the owner can choose which music will stimulate their brutish appetites.
Now two of my daughter's Dogz are pregnant, or as she puts it, four of them are expecting babies. This is not without drama. I quote from an e-mail that Rosie sent upstairs this morning: "The swine, Peridot, having made Chocolate pregnant, is taking no notice of her and not even attempting to help her during her pregnancy." The other male, apparently, arranges cushions around his expectant spouse. This is all clever enough. But the makers have thought further. What is to happen to all these cute little puppies when they are born? Might they be drowned, or formatted if there is no room for them? No. They are adopted, at specially designed websites, of which there are thousands - perhaps hundreds of thousands. You can take snapshots of your pets and display them on the web, or - as unsuspecting Grannies are shortly to find out - print them into the letterhead of the paper on which you write your thank-you notes. Rosie would spend hours every day searching for fluffy wolves and foxes to adopt if we let her.
Mass sentimentality provokes its own antibodies on the net. Parallel to the Petz sites where snapshots of gambolling puppies in pink cardigans are displayed, there are other, darker sites, run by teenage boys. These are devoted to the torture of Petz, and feature pictures of dogs that have been sprayed with water when they wanted cuddles, and starved, too. Since the Petz never eat anything that does not come from a can this comes as a terrible shock to their trusting owners; so the pro-Petz websites are full of amnesty-type declarations against torture, which must make the torturers feel really good.
Part of everyone involved knows that this is all a game. It's not, in that sense, proper artificial intelligence. But it is amazing and rather depressing to watch how completely Rosie has been sucked into the game. She would talk of nothing else if we let her; and when we get bored, she can always log on and find thousandz of friendz all talking about the same thing. It's the first time the web has really grabbed her, and it has done so for purely commercial purposes. You don't need real AI if all you want to do is manipulate humanz.