17 May 2014

Virtual reality for chickens is the future of farming, but is it also the future of humanity?

chicken with VR headset
Humans, despite our unchallenged success, splendor, and domination of this fair planet, have one major downfall: We’re incredibly self-centered. Whenever we discover something new, the first question is always how can it help us. Nearly all scientific endeavor is carried out with humanity’s continued success and well-being in mind. This isn’t to say that we don’t care about our environment, or the other animals that are unfortunate enough to share our planet, but it’s nearly always an afterthought. First we try to solve the problem hunger, pestilence, death and then we worry about how it might impact our botanical and zoological friends.

Case in point: Second Livestock, a fictional (for now) company that proposes to put Oculus Rift-like virtual reality headsets on chickens and other livestock. Livestock, once equipped with their VR headset, would be placed in their own individual enclosures, each with an omnidirectional treadmill that allows the animals to roam freely in a Second Life-like virtual world. This existence, according to Second Livestock, would be known as Virtual Free Range™; as far as the chickens are concerned, they get to experience a full and healthy life.

Virtual Free Range chickens roaming in their new 3D existence
Virtual Free Range chickens, roaming in their new 3D existence

Now, obviously this is a spoof but it does do a very good job of raising meaty questions about how we treat animals, and whether we even know what humane treatment is exactly. Second Livestock’s creator, Austin Stewart of Iowa State University, tells the Ames Tribune that “The goal of the project is to raise that question of how do we know what’s best, or what is humane treatment.” In other words, I think we all agree that captive battery chickens probably don’t have a great quality of life but are they happy when they’re free ranging? Are their brains simple enough that a VR headset, treadmill, and 3D world would be enough to keep them happy?

chicken enclosure

And why stop with chickens? What about depressed house cats or caged zoo animals that long for the great outdoors? Can we cure their woes (and wash our hands of any possible inhumanity) just by hooking them up to a virtual reality interface? In the future, as population density increases and we lack the farmland to maintain free-range livestock, this is something that we really do have to discuss.

Of course, this isn’t just about how we treat chickens and other animals, though. As always, Stewart brings it back round to what we really care about: our own well-being. “[The goal of the project is] also to look at how we treat ourselves. We’re living in these little boxes, just like chickens.” Here he’s referring to the fact that humanity, more than ever, spends its time cooped up in living rooms, office cubicles, and packed commuter trains and if VR headsets like Oculus Rift become popular, we will only become more cooped up as time goes on.

Eventually, of course, if we follow that path to its logical conclusion, we ourselves will end up in (literal) battery-like captivity, just like Neo and the rest of humankind in The Matrix. But, to turn Stewart’s words back on himself, who’s to say that spending a life in a Matrix-like VR construct is unpleasant or inhumane? If I can satisfy all of my earthly wants and spiritual needs by jacking into a realistic virtual world, why is that a bad thing? Why should I be worried that I’m spending my entire life in a tiny cubicle or pod, hooked up to a machine?

Courtest Extremetech


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