Second Livestock is The Matrix for Chickens

A farming project raises interesting questions about the treatment of animals and the nature of reality.

An illustration of a chicken with VR headset Credit:

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When The Matrix was released in 1999, it spurred intense philosophical discussion about the nature of reality in dorm rooms around the world.

At a time when the internet was just coming into the mainstream, inquisitive minds asked if, perhaps, we are all merely living in a dream world constructed by a master species. But few considered the idea that we could be that master species—that we would enslave the source of our own energy, our food, into a permanent existential illusion.

But that's exactly what Second Livestock is: A virtual reality for animals that allows them to live a “fulfilling existence.” Directed by Austin Stewart, a design professor at Iowa State University, the project would rig chickens with virtual reality goggles (basically an Oculus Rift for poultry) that would make them think they're living a free range existence. In reality, of course, they'd be penned up in a small enclosure.

On its website, Second Livestock (a pun on the immersive virtual world Second Life) explains that the enclosures are designed to offer a comfortable and healthy home. The chickens move freely on omni-directional treadmills, further reinforcing the “openness” of their virtual world. Each pen includes its own air filter, and the chickens are fed an organic, free-range diet.

“The goal of the project is to raise that question of how do we know what’s best, or what is humane treatment,” Stewart told the Ames Tribune. “And also to look at how we treat ourselves. We’re living in these little boxes, just like chickens.”

The detail of the world is impressive. Stewart explained to Vox that visual representations of water and insects inside the virtual world are mapped to food and water sources in the real world.

"We’re living in these little boxes, just like chickens.”

“And there are no predators,” he adds. “So they're free to just worry about chicken business."

There's no word on whether the virtual world is complete with computerized chicken “agents” designed to protect the security of the system and hunt down rogue chickens who are thinking of taking the red pill.

As for funding, Slate suggests you shouldn’t hold your breath. After all, there’s not much of an economic argument for giving chickens a more fulfilling existence—just a humanitarian one.

Perhaps our own overlords faced this same dilemma when they designed our own virtual enclosure. Deep, man.


Images: Austin Stewart

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