So many cats, so little time to worship each one.
I have just two cats. Well, “have” is a bit self-congratulatory. Let me put it this way: two cats have deigned to allow me the pleasure of their company in whatever manner they see fit. Each cat was abandoned by neighbors who moved and left the pet behind. (I know, right?) The first feline, long known to the children on the block as Patches, was already in the habit of visiting my house. So she simply made her visits much, much longer.
Cat two, Tigger, was also prenamed by the kids. I'd have gone with something grander, say, Athena and Achilles, but Patches and Tigger they were and will ever be. (Of course, we don't know and can never know their true, deep and inscrutable names.) When Tigger saw the sweet deal Patches got, he requested (okay, demanded) entry. At this moment, he is staring at me, which means he wants me to get out of his chair. I explain that I must needs sit here to work and thus keep him in cat food. His continued stare translates to: “Work when I don't need the chair, bub.”
The Humane Society of the U.S. estimates that Americans own more than 86 million cats. And who can blame us? To have a tiny god, a Bastet, sitting on the sofa is a consummation to be devoutly wished for. (Dogs are great, too—they delivered the diphtheria antitoxin across the frozen tundra to Nome! Okay, dog people?)
The latest strong evidence of our cat fixation comes from an artificial-intelligence project at Google's X Labs. Researchers there put together a network of 16,000 computer processors, which were exposed to 10 million random YouTube videos. The network was then probed to see what it knew about the world. And when the researchers showed pictures of cats to the network, it basically responded, “Yes, I recognize that thing”—either because so much of what's on YouTube is cat-related or because Mr. Mistoffelees infiltrated the network and told it what was what.
Some news reports claimed that the researchers taught a computer to recognize cats, perhaps because Congress needs more faulty information to support cutting funding for scientific research. “The point wasn't to find a cat,” Google research partner Andrew Ng of Stanford University told NPR. “It's just that cats [were] one thing we happened to look for and found,” Ng then explained, based on his correct assumption that a lot of people post cat videos, and so the network saw lots of cats and learned to recognize them.
The bet here is that Ng also would have gotten a positive result had he asked the network if it recognized the image of a guy taking a projectile to the groinal area. Of course, a network trained to spot crotch smacks would not inspire Congress to support science funding, either. So here was the actual point: to observe how a small-scale simulated brain makes sense of the information to which it is exposed—which will come in handy for enterprises such as better search engines and speech recognition. Plus, there must be some connection to improved weapons systems. There, that ought to keep the money flowing.
Speaking of flowing money, some cat owners recently became quite cross with the company behind the iPad app Games for Cats. According to a Web site called the Escapist, the app entertains your cat by displaying various moving objects on the screen. It's a higher-tech version of making the cat chase a laser pointer's red dot, which is great exercise for the cat and a hilarious exercise for the human with the pointer.
Anyway, upgrades to the game were available for purchase via a menu. This menu was “so user friendly … that even cats can use it,” according to the Escapist. After numerous allegedly inadvertent expenditures by cats, the app's designers complicated the menu pathway to ensure that only humans could buy more and better cat toys.
Must run, the little Bastet really wants the chair.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE
Comment on this article at ScientificAmerican.com/oct2012
This article was originally published with the title It's Full of Cats.