. . . I bought a robotic cat. It wasn’t very advanced, just a cheap, vaguely cat-looking thing from Toys “R” Us. It was made of metallic plastic, nothing furry and fuzzy about it . . . .
The “robot” was laughably unlike a cat ot anyone who knows the real thing. It comes racing toward you when you call it, for instance, preposterious in a living cat. But one of its behaviors “worked.” I left it on while I read, and after a time it began to make a pitiful noise. It seemed to “suffer” if I ignored it for some preprogrammed interval. Soon I found myself getting up to “pet” it—stroking an area on the plastic head that converts the whimpers into a soothing sound, not a purr but producing a similar effect. A cute trick, I thought, to get me to want to give it attention and “affection.”
Sadie, my real cat, found the robot curious at first. She noticed its motions and sounds. Being nearsighted, like all cats, she went up close and sniffed it. Not finding any animal scent, she walked away and ignored it.
Then, about an hour later, Saide came up to me, doing hte things she always does when she wants attention: a slight scratching of my hand at half-claw, an intent look, a waving around of her tail, and, most of all, a rigidity in her entire body that always tells me without a doubt that she wants—no, needs—the attention we call petting. I gave her what she asked for. She started purring.
. . . I looked down at Sadie. Suddenly I could not help wondering if all this asking for and getting attention, this purring, wasn’t just like the hardwired program in the plastic robot. Sadie at that time was nineteen years old, a wily and mature creature who would look me dead in th eye, and with whom I had a complicated relationship. Nevertheless, I was momentarily a little afraid of her. Was she nothing more than a mechanism, a cheap little program, an empty zombie? I looked into her eyes. And I asked aloud, “Are you just a trick?”
—from “Is Sadie the Cat a Trick?”