Virtual Reality for Cows?

Various media claimed in November 2019 that there would be very special experiments with cows in Russia. There are pictures circulating showing an animal wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset. This one could reduce anxiety and increase milk yield if it would show a pleasant environment – that’s at least the media’s assumption. But, according to The Verge, “it’s not at all clear whether this is a genuine trial or an elaborate marketing stunt” (The Verge, 26 November 2019). At the moment, there is hardly any evidence as to whether VR would work for cows. There is no doubt that it makes sense for humans, at least in the context of marketing. They could wear VR glasses to see a landscape with cows. They would then believe that most cows have a good life. But this good life does not exist. Cows suffer from what you do to them – some more, some less. “At the end of the day, what we can say is that someone took the time to make at least one mock-up virtual reality headset for a cow and took these pictures. We don’t need to milk the story any more than that.” (The Verge, 26 November 2019)

About the Urgence of Alternative Meat Production Methods

In 2019, Germany – once again- has been facing various scandals about food, to be concrete, about animal food. Starting with the outcome of the cruelty of milk cows in different dairy farms to the point of the latest occurrence – the scandal of the Wilke meat and sausage company. The manufacturer has sold plenty of meat and sausages contaminated with microbes and is now suspected of having caused the death of about 25 people, who have consumed their products. This again claims for the need of alternatives to animal products. One could be the production of meat by 3D printing, as the russian start-up Toubia tries to. With its method, the ISS has already printed steaks in space. This procedure would also lead to an increased reduction of carbon dioxid. But then the issue arises, whether vegetarians could also eat such meat. In case of the vegan diet, the answer is clear, as they avoid all groceries which contain ingredients of animal origin. In case of the vegetarian one, the answer is more tricky. It clearly depends on the reason why vegetarians became vegetarians. If their motive simply has been the reduction of their personal (in-)direct carbon dioxid emission and/or to avoid such risks like in the case of Wilke, this would definitely be a good alternative. But if their motivation has been the reduction of animals being killed, it depends on the individual view of every vegetarian. Like for the traditional cheese production, meat produced by the method of Toubia is based on cow cells. It is now the question, whether the use of animal cells for the production of meat is already one form of slaughtering or not. In addition, this does not solve the issue about the dairy cattle. There is no alternative production method for milk products, yet, so they are still needed for such food. Thus, the carbon dioxid reduction still remains higher and incidents like the one alredy mentioned above still can occur. Additionally, a huge part of the slaughter cattle consists of those cows, which have to be “disposed” after their high-volume milk production – at least in Germany. This indicates that slaughting also will persist, even though alternatives are in use. Another possibility would be the 3D printing method of the Israelian start-up Jet Eat imitating the texture of meat with purely vegan ingredients. But here again, it is questionable, whether inveterate meat eaters would see it as a feasable alternative. All these questions listed here are only some of many concerning this topic, but they sufficiently show its complex of problems.

The Reversed Cyborg

Chimeras in the biological and medical sense are organisms that consist of cells or tissues of different individuals and yet form closed and viable (not necessarily reproductive) organisms. They can be located within a species or between species and can be both plants and animals. There are natural (blood chimeras in mammals) and artificial mixed organisms (grafting in plants, animal-human embryos). Cyborgs are not chimeras in this sense. Nevertheless, research in this field might also be relevant for them, in particular for inverted or reversed cyborgs, for example robots in which an animal or human brain or organ is implanted. Animal-human chimeras for the production of human organs are regarded as unproblematic by many ethicists. According to a comment by Oliver Bendel, this is astonishing, since findings from animal ethics and veterinary medicine and in particular suffering and death of non-human living beings are ignored.

The Fight against Plastic in the Seas

The pollution of water by plastic is a topic that has been in the media for a few years now. In 2015, the School of Engineering FHNW and the School of Business FHNW investigated whether a robotic fish – like Oliver Bendel’s CLEANINGFISH (2014) – could be a solution. In 2018, the information and machine ethicist commissioned another work to investigate several existing or planned projects dealing with marine pollution. Rolf Stucki’s final thesis in the EUT study program was based on “a literature research on the current state of the plastics problem worldwide and its effects, but also on the properties and advantages of plastics” (Management Summary, own translation). “In addition, interviews were conducted with representatives of the projects. In order to assess the internal company factors (strengths, weaknesses) and external environmental factors (opportunities, risks), SWOT analyses were prepared on the basis of the answers and the research” (Management Summary) According to Stucki, the results show that most projects are financially dependent on sponsors and donors. Two of them are in the concept phase; they should prove their technical and financial feasibility in the medium term. With regard to social commitment, it can be said that all six projects are very active. A poster shows a comparison (the photos were alienated for publication in this blog). WasteShark stands out as a robot. He is, so to speak, the CLEANINGFISH who has become reality.

How to Treat Animals

Parallel to his work in machine ethics, Oliver Bendel is trying to establish animal-machine interaction (AMI) as a discipline. He was very impressed by Clara Mancini’s paper “Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI): A Manifesto” on animal-computer interaction. In his AMI research, he mainly investigates robots, gadgets, and devices and their behavior towards animals. There are not only moral questions, but also questions concerning the design of outer appearance and the ability to speak. The general background for his considerations is that more and more machines and animals meet in closed, half-open and open worlds. He believes that semi-autonomous and autonomous systems should have rules so that they treat animals well. They should not disturb, frighten, injure or kill them. Examples are toy robots, domestic robots, service robots in shopping malls and agricultural robots. Jackie Snow, who writes for New York Times, National Geographic, and Wall Street Journal, has talked to several experts about the topic. In an article for Fast Company, she quotes the ethicists Oliver Bendel and Peter Singer. Clara Mancini is also expressing her point of view. The article with the title “AI’s next ethical challenge: how to treat animals” can be downloaded here.