Wouldn’t it be incredible to be able to understand what your pet is thinking? While pet owners currently guess what their dog’s barks and gestures mean, one scientist is working on a device he hopes one day will serve as a pet translator. Using artificial intelligence, he’s figuring out how to translate an animal’s vocalizations and facial expressions into language humans can understand.
Con Slobodchikoff, a professor at Northern Arizona University, has been working with prairie dogs for 30 years by studying and observing their communication, language skills and other behaviours. He’s monitored their growling, barking, howling and gestures to determine what they’re trying to convey to others.
Slobodchikoff hopes computers will aid humans in figuring out what gestures such as tail wagging and growling actually mean. Animals have their own language and means of communicating. For example, some alert the group about possible threats, and their warnings include precise details such as what type and how big a predator is or the colour of clothing a nearby human is wearing.
Slobodchikoff teamed up with a computer scientist to create an algorithm that changes a prairie dog’s vocalizations into English. The animal expert is also developing a tool to translate a pet’s facial expressions, sounds and body movements.
“I thought, if we can do this with prairie dogs, we can certainly do it with dogs and cats,” Slobodchikoff said.
Slobodchikoff’s work is in the early stages. He’s compiling thousands of videos of dogs, which he will match with an AI algorithm. With the help of human interpretation, the device will decipher barks, tail wags, and other gestures. His goal is to build a device that a person can point at a barking dog to find out whether it wants to eat or go for a walk, for example.
Being able to communicate with animals will have many benefits. The obvious one is that it will bring humans and their pets closer together. But pet translators could also save lives. In 2015 in Canada, 15,341 cats and 2,820 dogs were euthanized. Many animals are euthanized because they have behavioural problems that are misunderstood. For example, an aggressive dog may simply be afraid. “You could use that information and instead of backing the dog into a corner, give the dog more space,” Slobodchikoff said.
In addition, a pet translator could benefit farmers and ranchers by helping them identify sick animals, which is particularly difficult to do with livestock such as sheep.