Understanding our pets in our own language is much closer than we think!
By Justyne Yuen-Lee
Credit: Twitter / @DisneyPixar
If you’ve ever seen the Pixar movie Up, then you might remember when Carl and Russell bump into Dug. To their surprise, Dug was fitted with a collar that allowed his thoughts to be translated into several different languages! Even though it was a concept in a movie, this could be our reality in the next ten years, according to a report sponsored by Amazon, The Next Big Thing.
Who’s behind this project?
Instead of guessing what’s wrong with Lassie, Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, a professor at Northern University, wants to use artificial intelligence, as well as existing and growing scientific research, to decipher what animal facial expressions and barks mean.
The North American rodent makes high pitched calls in the presence of a predator.
Slobodchikoff has studied Prairie Dogs for over thirty years and he is convinced that the rodents’ vocalizations are comparable to what we think of as a language. Prairie Dogs have different calls to warn each other about approaching predators and Slobodchikoff discovered that the calls differ according to the type and size of the predator.
Using this research, he worked with a computer scientist colleague to develop an algorithm to turn the vocalizations into English. He then founded Zoolingua, an organization that is dedicated to developing tech for animal-human communication, to create an artificial intelligence tool for translating dog sounds, facial expressions, and body language into something that we can understand. His ultimate goal: a device that translates woofs into English.
Dr. Slobodchikoff envisions AI that can help dogs say “I want to go for a walk!”
Besides cutting the guesswork into trying to distinguish what your pet needs or wants, having a translator could save millions of pet lives. In the US alone, there are over 3 million unwanted pets who are euthanized primarily due to misunderstood behavioral problems. With a translator, humans would be able to understand why their dog is acting aggressively and work to correct the issues before they become too difficult to handle.
For farmers, a pet translator can help them understand when one of their animals is sick. It can be difficult for people to recognize pain in animal faces. For instance, the work of Dr. Krista McLennan, who lectures at the University of Chester, has focused on developing a scale for estimating pain levels in sheep. She worked with her colleague, Dr. Peter Robinson, to develop her scale into an algorithm. Their work will be implemented in future artificial intelligence, as a means of translating animal thoughts into English.
However, if a translator will exist in the future, it’s hard to say if you will be able to have a heart-to-heart, back-and-forth conversation with your pet. There may still be vast differences in human to animal cognition that scientists will have yet to distinguish.
In the meantime, we’ll just have to be content with seeing their love rather than hearing it (in English).