Are cats and AI the puurrrrfect partnership?

Tuesday, 27 June 2023

A unique art installation has been developed to explore the future relationship between cats and AI, featuring a robot arm that plays with cats in a ‘cat utopia’, and initial observations show that they liked it!

Cat Royale is a collaborative project that brings together the artists Blast Theory with computer scientists from the University of Nottingham, and animal experts from a range of other institutions, to design a robot that can entertain cats. Three cats – Clover, Pumpkin and Ghostbuster – spent up to 6 hours a day paying with the robot which used AI to learn which games they most enjoyed. They were filmed throughout and an edited eight hour film is currently being shown at the Science Gallery, King’s College in London.

Clover, Pumpkin and Ghostbuster were filmed living in the specially designed space that catered for their every need, with areas for playing and socialising, cosy dens for sleeping, feeding stations, and even luxury litter trays.

Cat with the robot arm specially designed living space. Image credit - Stephen Daly

At the centre was a robot arm offering activities to make the cats happier, these included dragging a ‘mouse’ toy along the floor, raising a feather ‘bird’ into the air, and even offering them treats to eat. The team then trained an AI to learn what games the cats liked best so that it could personalise their experiences.

Steve Benford, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Nottingham led the design and programming of the robot arm and said: “From automated cat flaps and feeders to robot vacuum cleaners, robots and AI are increasingly becoming part of our cats’ lives. Through this project we wanted to explore how we could design it to enrich their lives and our relationship with them and ensure it is trustworthy.”

“The initial observations were positive with the cats engaging with the robot arm playing with the toys it offered and seeming to enjoy the interactions, even physically challenging it at times with a tug of war. The deeper questions raised by the project about the benefits and trustworthiness of AI are important. The data we gather from projects like this can help inform how AI products are designed to ensure they are beneficial for all users, animal or human, while also to involve the public in exploring their longer term implications.”

Matt Adams, lead artist on Cat Royale from Blast Theory said: “As artists we are fascinated by the subtle ways that new technologies promise new utopias while extracting hidden costs. What does it mean when we give AI a role in our homes and in looking after our pets? AI can be hard to understand with many complex terms and competing definitions. In Cat Royale visitors have the chance to watch an AI in action, learning, adapting and trying to quantify happiness.”

To ensure the comfort and safety of the cats, experts in animal welfare have been involved in the design of the project from the start and have been monitoring the cats behaviours. Professor Daniel Mills from the University of Lincoln said: “Some owners feel they are just there to serve their cats’ needs; this project gives us a unique chance to see whether the human element of our interactions is important. I am sure many owners will be relieved to know, the relationship between these three cats did not weaken and if anything strengthened as a result of this experience. Interestingly the cats also seem to have formed a closer social relationship with each other as well.”,

Cat Royale is funded by the Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Hub. The TAS Hub assembles a team from the Universities of Southampton, Nottingham and King’s College London. The Hub sits at the centre of the £33m Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Programme, funded by the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund.

The role of the TAS Hub is to enable the development of socially beneficial autonomous systems that are both trustworthy in principle and trusted in practice by individuals, society and government.

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Steve Benford on

Jane Icke - Media Relations Manager Science
Phone: 0115 7486462

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