Pet owners often talk to their furry friends in human language, and while there may be times when our pets seem to understand what we’re saying, you can’t really be expected to understand the exact message your dog or cat wants to convey when they bark or meow. But that might change in about a decade or less, as a leading animal expert hopes to come up with a “pet translator” that converts a dog’s barks and growls into human language.
For more than three decades, Northern Arizona University professor emeritus of biology Con Slobodchikoff has been studying the communication patterns of prairie dogs, and as NBC News noted, all those years observing this North American rodent species has led him to believe that the animals have their own advanced language. For instance, prairie dogs could vary their high-pitched warning calls if a predator is in the area, depending on the type or size of the creature. They could also blend their calls in a number of ways, with some combinations supposedly capable of identifying the color of the outfit a nearby human is wearing.
Taking his experience studying prairie dogs and understanding their language, Slobodchikoff teamed up with a computer scientist he had been working with to come up with an algorithm that could convert the rodents’ cries and calls into English. He then created his own company called Zoolingua, whose objective is to develop and launch a similar “pet translator” that could turn their sounds, gestures, and facial expressions into human language.
“I thought, if we can do this with prairie dogs, we can certainly do it with dogs and cats,” Slobodchikoff told NBC News.
For the meantime, it seems that Slobodchikoff’s main focus is on dogs, as his objective is to develop a device that could translate a dog’s barks into English words or sentences, such as “I want to eat now” or “I want to go for a walk.”
Although the technology sounds quite promising, a report from the Daily Mail noted that it probably won’t be out on the market anytime soon. In 2013, Slobodchikoff was quoted as saying pet translators might be available within a decade, assuming “extensive research” is done in relation to such a project. Separately, Amazon researcher and “futurologist” William Higham had also predicted that it might be another 10 years or so before these devices make their way to consumers.
“The amount of money now being spent on pets means there is huge consumer demand for this,” said Higham in 2017.
“Somebody is going to put this together.”
— Pets Plus Us (@PetsPlusUsCA) January 14, 2018
NBC News stressed that Slobodchikoff’s project is still in its infancy, as he is gathering “thousands” of dog videos where the animals can be seen barking, growling, or showing off certain body movements. Once he has gathered enough data from the videos, he will then use the clips to teach an artificial intelligence algorithm about the methods the animals are using to communicate. That may also require the involvement of humans in interpreting the dogs’ various barks, tail wags, and other gestures, but Slobodchikoff hopes to rely more on existing and future research to come up with a pet translator that delivers results based on “careful experiments, rather than guesswork.”
The implications of the technology Slobodchikoff is working on are quite plentiful. According to NBC News, “poorly understood behavioral problems” are at the root of many of the 3 million cases of unwanted dogs and cats getting euthanized per year. As dogs that growl aggressively may be more afraid than angry, the presence of a pet translator has the potential of helping humans understand what’s going through the minds of their pets, instead of jumping into conclusions that could ultimately threaten their welfare. Furthermore, Slobodchikoff has hinted that his technology could be refined in such a way that humans and their pets could have two-way conversations with the help of the translator.
Aside from helping minimize instances where humans misunderstand the messages their pets are trying to send, Slobodchikoff’s pet translator project and other similar forms of AI-based technology could also help people recognize sick animals while still early. Both the Daily Mail and NBC News cited a U.K. study, where researchers used hundreds of sheep photos to create an AI algorithm that could potentially help farmers or ranchers identify sick animals.