Welcome to Cat Royale


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Cat Royale explores the impact of AI on humans and animals.

From the 22 March – 12 April, three cats lived inside an environment created by the artists. For 12 days Ghostbuster, Pumpkin and Clover spent time inside each day. Their every need was catered for. They had food, drink and air conditioning. They had high ledges to watch from; cubbyholes to snooze in and a floor to ceiling scratch post. Every surface was covered in carpet so that they could climb and explore freely.

At the centre of the room was a robot arm controlled by an AI, connected to a computer vision system. Every few minutes the AI instructed the robot to offer a game to the cats. Over time it learned which games each cat liked best.

The robot threw balls or dropped them into a ball run. It dangled feathers, offered snacks and introduced a cardboard box. It rang bells and dragged a toy mouse.

To ensure the comfort and safety of the cats, experts in animal welfare were involved in the design of the project from the start. Senior staff from the RSPCA were supervising throughout the 12 days.

Cat Royale was made possible as part of Blast Theory’s role as Cultural Ambassadors for the Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Hub. The work was created as part of an extensive collaboration with researchers at the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham; and with Professor Clara Mancini at the Open University and Professor Daniel Mills at the University of Lincoln.

In March and April 2023, the work was presented as a time delayed video stream at the World Science Fair in Brisbane to an audience of over 400,000 people. Daily highlight films were shown on YouTube and Facebook (scroll down the page to watch them).

A seven hour film was created by the artists for the exhibition AI: Who’s Looking After Me? at Science Gallery London in June 2023.

What do you think of Cat Royale? Take our short audience survey and let us know!

Cat Royale: Day One

Cat Royale: Day Two

Cat Royale: Day Three

Cat Royale: Day Four

Cat Royale: Day Five

Cat Royale: Day Six


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What does a utopia for cats look like?


Our friends at We Make Stuff Happen have knocked it out of the park with their work on the environment for the cats. We looked at Verner Panton’s amazing designs from the 60s and 70s as inspiration: they are louche, luxurious and made for lounging. The resulting design from WMSH is a cat-centric world made for exploration as well as relaxing.

So here it is, complete with cat-safe plants, giant scratching post, catnip and sunken litter tray areas. The whole room is covered in carpet that is tempting to scratch but robust enough to take a hammering.

Meet the cats

From left to right: Ghosbuster, Pumpkin and Clover

Say hello to Ghostbuster, Pumpkin, and Clover

Ghostbuster – 4 years old
Ghostbuster has a supersonic meow that can convince anyone to give him the attention he deserves.

Pumpkin – 3 years old
Pumpkin loves snuggling under his favourite blanket and finding cubbyholes to sleep in.

Clover – 3 years old
Clover is an acrobat cat. She loves treating any room like an agility course.

Fun fact: Pumpkin and Clover are siblings and Ghostbuster is their dad.

They live with Ed who has been part of the development of Cat Royale since we met last year.

Follow us on socials as we’ll soon be sharing adorable behind the scenes moments from their recent stay at the studio.

Ghostbuster meeting a robot arm for the first time

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Cat safety and wellbeing has been of paramount importance since we started work in 2021 and we have built a range of systems and procedures to keep the cats safe. Looking after animals involves a relationship of care and love between humans and pets in which both should benefit.

Our goal is to make a utopia for cats: an ideal world where every possible comfort and luxury is provided. The type of bedding, the number of feeding places and viewing platforms are all designed with this in mind. Each cat has their own personality and their own needs: we will pay careful attention to each one of them to ensure that they have a great time in the best kind of cat hotel there can be.

The project is being made in consultation with a vet and with experts in animal behaviour such as Professor Daniel Mills and Professor Clara Mancini. We have also received guidance from the RSPCA. Our approach has been informed by the paper Advancing Ethical Principles for Non-Invasive, Respectful Research with Nonhuman Animal Participants (Van Patter and Blattner). These principles are non-maleficence, beneficence and voluntary participation.

The cats will be monitored throughout the project by a Cat Welfare Officer. They will stop the robot arm from carrying out tasks if there is any threat to the cats’ safety. We are using a Dead Man’s switch: unless the switch is being constantly held down by a person, the system will immediately stop.

The cats will stay in the room for six hours per day for twelve days. If the cats show any sign of distress we will immediately step in to care for them. The AI will not be responsible for any welfare needs: food, water, warmth and light levels are all controlled by the Cat Welfare Officer.

We’re hosting Ed and his three beautiful cats Ghostbuster, Pumpkin and Clover. 

Ghostbuster is a four year old Siamese cat. Ed says, “Ghostbuster has a supersonic meow that can convince anyone to give him the attention he deserves.”

Pumpkin is a three year old, ginger and white cat. Ed describes him as “loving snuggling under his favourite blanket and finding cubbyholes to sleep in.”

Clover is a three year old, calico cat. “Clover is an acrobat cat. She loves treating any room like an agility course”, according to Ed

Pumpkin and Clover are siblings and Ghostbuster is their dad. Their owner Ed, is a London-based theatre creative originally from the West Country. Ed has been part of the development process of Cat Royale since we met last year. He is curious about how AI could affect the ways he will care for his cats in the future. 

The cats will spend 18 hours a day outside of the room, living normally.

Cat Royale gets its world premiere at the World Science Festival in Brisbane. From 22nd March – 2nd April, audiences can visit the Cat Royale installation at the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane and watch the three cats as they live in utopia and are treated like royalty.

Not in Brisbane? This page will be updated daily video updates from inside the environment.

Later this year, a film installation version of Cat Royale will head to the Science Gallery London and Wales Millenium Centre.

At the start of the day the Cat Welfare Officer makes her independent assessment of the happiness of each cat using a system called the Cat Stress Score (Kassler & Turner 1997). Using this she will set a happiness score for each cat as a percentage.

Every few minutes the AI suggests a play activity for the cats. If a human operator approves it, the robot arm will then offer that activity. The operator scores each cat’s engagement with the activity using the Participation in Play scoring system. And over time this affects the system’s assessment of the happiness of the cats.

The computer vision system tracks each cat and their location. We are also training the computer vision model to recognise happiness based on training data. Dozens of members of the public helped our team to watch over 10,000 video clips. Using an ethogram of cat behaviour the system was trained with 40 types of feline behaviour such as “Pawing, batting an object” or “Vigilant, watching”. 

Our Cat Welfare Officer watches throughout the day and continuously records her own independent view of the happiness of the cats which will be stored for later study.

In our practice, we’ve always been fascinated by the ways that technology can transform our lives, especially at moments when that technology is still emerging, is less well understood and can be hard to grasp.

Artificial Intelligence is already in widespread use but is generally invisible and every definition of AI is slightly different from the next one. Driverless cars are often discussed but it is less well known that AI is used in mortgage approvals, crime detection and even criminal sentencing. Inevitably this has led to miscarriages of justice such as the man arrested due to faulty facial recognition. AI is a black box even to those who create the systems. Melanie Mitchell has shown how changing a single pixel in a picture of a cat is enough to fool an AI so that it no longer recognises it.

And these technologies are widely deployed with animals: there is facial recognition for cows.

There is evidence that farm and zoo animals engaged in technology-supported enrichment activities such as opening a gate or pressing a key on a piano show greater excitement and other positive responses. Computer game tasks are often used in zoos: rhesus macaques will play a game with a joystick for up to nine hours a day. 

So the technology is already here and is growing fast. 

Ten years ago we got interested in how big tech companies were gathering data excessively, with poor safeguards. We made a life coaching app called Karen (2015) to explore what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this. With a straight face, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk suggest that their products increase the happiness of everyone in the world.

We started working on Cat Royale to explore what it might mean when AI comes into our homes and affects us and our loved ones. All three artists have pets and we’re curious what cats might make of an autonomous system. How much can we really know about what our pets are thinking? How do we know that they are happy?

In Cat Royale we can see AI in action and grapple with what it means for us and our loved ones to live with machines that are ‘learning’ about us and adapting to us.

We hope Cat Royale will improve our understanding of cats and how we can treat them better. Automatic feeders and robotic toys are already common for cats. Videos of cats riding on robot vacuum cleaners are a whole genre on the web. Dyson is already researching domestic robots to help with washing up or tidying up.

If cats are going to be living more closely with technology, including autonomous systems, it’s important to understand how cats experience that relationship.

Through watching the cats and learning about their different needs and personalities, we will be able to study how they interact. Our ambition is to learn how to better understand cats and their needs.

From decoding the vocalisations of dolphins and marmoset monkeys to recognising when sheep are in pain, developments in AI have brought new leaps in interspecies communication.

Alongside this, studies using robots and mechanical systems have helped scientists to better understand the behaviour of animals such as bees and cockroaches.

As part of the research underlying this project we aim to identify the potential positive influence that automated systems and AI may have in the care of companion animals, in particular with better understanding of cats and their needs. And we hope to understand the limitations and challenges of these technologies in care and welfare settings.


Professor Steve Benford  from the University of Nottingham writes: 

“As a Computer Scientist, I’m interested in how we can design and apply artificial intelligence and the autonomous systems that it makes possible in ways that benefit rather than harm people and animals. However, this is a far from simple proposition, as the technology is rapidly emerging and is difficult even for technical experts to fully comprehend, let alone the wider populations whose lives will be shaped by it. Our approach is to seek to develop trustworthy autonomous systems – ones that are worthy of us placing trust in them to act in our best interests. 

This requires adopting what we call a Responsible Research Innovation approach in which researchers engage diverse stakeholders to ‘anticipate, engage, reflect and act’ responsibly in relation to an emerging technology. One recognised way of doing this is through co-design, that is to involve these stakeholders in the technology design process from the earliest possible stages, developing the technologies with them rather than for them. Another, is to partner with artists who are highly skilled at engaging public audiences in exploring the complex societal challenges that surround new technologies. 

Cat Royale excites me because it combines both approaches. On the one hand, diverse stakeholders have already become involved in the process of designing our system to enrich the lives of cats, including considering how the cats themselves can be treated as design participants as my colleague Clara Mancini discusses below. On the other hand, Blast Theory have posed what is, at first sight anyway, a beguilingly simple question – essentially how can a robot play with cats? Of course, this turns out to be a far richer question than it might at first appear. As ever with this kind of ‘one off’ creative and exploratory design project, it is difficult to predict exactly what we will learn in advance and we will not at this stage be able to generalise our observations to other cats in the same situation. This is an artwork not a science lab: but I’m sure that project will lead us in new directions, challenge us to develop the technology in a responsible and trustworthy way, and will ultimately lead us to reflect on how autonomous systems can benefit and not harm people and animals. I look forward to reporting our findings.”


Professor Clara Mancini from The Open University writes: 

“As a researcher in Animal-Computer Interaction, I am very interested in understanding how technology may affect animals who are exposed to it and how we may enable them to participate in the design of technology that improves both their wellbeing and human-animal relations. 

As technology becomes increasingly embedded into the built environment and integrated within human activities, so are animals increasingly exposed to it and to a multiplicity of technology-mediated interactions, whether these are active or passive, direct or indirect, cognitive or physical, dyadic or distributed, etc. Understanding how animals respond to these interactions is essential if we are to ensure that any technological intervention we design has minimal impacts and maximum benefits for them. While giving animals themselves the opportunity to participate in the design process is important for achieving these aims, interpreting what our nonhuman co-designers may make of our design proposals, enabling them to make their own design suggestions and allowing them to consent (or otherwise) to their very involvement in research and design activities remain key challenges. 

I believe that tackling these complex challenges requires creative approaches, which is why I think that design interventions such as Cat Royale have a very important role to play in beginning to explore related issues and bring to the fore questions that we should address more systematically. For example, what might we gauge about our feline participants’ experience from the different ways in which they engage with the robot arm’s activity? What hypotheses might we begin to formulate about possible approaches we might develop to systematically measure cats’ experience with these kinds of robotic agents? 

I am very excited to see how the project unfolds!”


Dr Kate Devlin from Kings’ College London says,

“The Science Gallery London was set up to bring to life new research from King’s College London on urgent global issues through the marriage of science and art. In 2023, it is running a season of work exploring the theme of A.I., Care and Ethics with the working title: Who’s Looking After Me?

With ever-increasing pressure on the care sector, robots and AI are often hailed as a potential solution to a human labour shortage. However, there is still a gulf between proposed automated care and the trust we place in technology. It is one thing to suggest we let the machines look after our Granny; it is another to see that happen in practice. The joy of Cat Royale is that it explores our attitudes to who – or what – is deemed fit to care for us. By focusing on our very British prioritisation of pets, we can explore how welfare and happiness might be automated and, for my research, how it is received by the public.

When Cat Royale exhibits at the Science Gallery, I’ll be gathering data by asking visitors about their attitudes to automated care and their acceptance and trust in these technologies.”

Cat Royale is a collaboration between artist group Blast Theory and the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham. The project is made possible by the Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Hub, a research project funded by UKRI.


Cat Royale by Blast Theory. Developed in collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham and funded by UKRI via the Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Hub.

Co-commissioned by Queensland Museum for World Science Festival Brisbane 2023, and Science Gallery London.

Cat environment by We Make Stuff Happen.

Blast Theory is supported using public funding from Arts Council England.