Amazon’s researcher says software may let us understand our pets within a decade

Oh, the stories they could tell and the questions they could answer if only we could understand their barks and meows!

Imagine, after Gadget the Jack Russell picks a fight — again — with the hulking Rottweiler next door, you could ask, “Whatever was going through your little doggy pea brain?” and you’d get a straight answer. Imagine, after Fluffy the tabby yaks up a giant slimy furball on your new Persian carpet, just two inches from the easily cleanable tile floor, you could throw up your hands and demand, “Why? Why?” and kitty could tell you why.

Well, this is the future, and it’s closer than you might think, if Amazon-funded researcher William Higham is to be believed.

In connection with Amazon’s new “Shop the Future” online store, London futurist Higham was commissioned by the Seattle e-commerce behemoth to produce a report which concluded that pet translation devices could prove viable, according to The Guardian.

Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, devices that can understand dogs may arrive within a decade, Higham told the news site.

“Innovative products that succeed are based around a genuine and major consumer needs,” he said.

“The amount of money now spent on pets – they are becoming fur babies to so many people – means there is huge consumer demand for this.”

Studies of prairie dog vocalizations and behavior done using artificial intelligence to analyze the sounds suggest the rodents have language, according to a UC Berkeley Ph.D. whose conclusions helped Higham toward his belief in the viability of pet-translation devices.

The prairie dog research by Con Slobodchikoff, now a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Arizona, revealed that the animals “have words for different species of predator and can describe the color of clothes of a human, or the coat of coyotes or dogs,” Slobodchikoff told The Guardian.

Slobodchikoff is the director of the Animal Language Institute, which holds to the view that while Peaches the Pomeranian may not quite match her master’s gift for gab, she may well have oral communication skills sufficient to get along in the world.

“Although it has not been proven that animal communication follows rules, that animals are aware of themselves or others, or that they deliberately communicate to manipulate their environment or other animals … enough evidence exists to point to the possibility that animals might have languages that meet their needs as well as our languages meet our needs,” according to the institute.

Now, Slobodchikoff is the first to admit that your average housecat may not have much to contribute to a discussion.

“A lot of times it might just be, ‘You idiot, just feed me and leave me alone,'” Slobodchikoff said.

Slobodchikoff’s fan Higham, who runs a consultancy dedicated to predicting consumer trends, is one of two futurists working with Amazon on the Shop the Future  online store, which the company has rolled out in the U.K. The store offers a multitude of futuristic and often gimmicky gadgets, books and foods, from a “Magic Wand” remote control to a “smart” Bluetooth-connected mood lamp to “ready to eat wild black ants.”

Higham’s faith that tech and smart people will soon give us deep insight into the sounds pets make is not universally held among his fellow animal researchers.

Dogs, for example, have rudimentary oral communication skills that are already easily understood by most people, suggested Juliane Kaminski, a Portsmouth University psychologist who studies interactions between the two species.

“We would not describe dogs’ forms of communication as language in the scientific sense,” Kaminski told the Guardian.

Still, she said, a translation device could be useful for people lacking intuition, or for small children who often drastically misinterpret signals given by animals.

Here at SiliconBeat, we will eagerly await the arrival of pet-translation devices, if only so Rover can finally answer the eternal question: “Who’s a good boy?”


Photo: A SiliconBeat staffer’s sister’s dog, Mikey. What are you trying to tell us, Mikey? (Levi Sumagaysay)


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