Scientists are Designing Technology to Help Animals ‘Talk’

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Staffordshire Bull Terrier with a phone

“What would the world be like if dogs could talk to us?” asks Melody Jackson, “and not just our pet dogs at home, but working dogs, assistance dogs, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, medical alert dogs?” Jackson isn’t pitching an idea for the next Pixar movie—rather, she’s a computer scientist at Georgia Tech who’s developing innovative new ways for animals to communicate using technology.

Jackson believes that communication technologies can be developed specifically for different kinds of animals. According to WIRED, she has already built special computerized vests for service dogs, “so that in an emergency they can find another human and pull a mechanical lever on the vest that triggers an audio message: My handler needs you to come with me!

Service dogs, according to Jackson, already perform a range of sophisticated and complex tasks—from identifying explosives by scent to guiding deaf people to the source of a sound—but are unable to communicate the full range of their knowledge. Bomb-sniffing dogs, for instance, can differentiate between different types of explosives, some much more volatile than others. But for the most part, the dogs are only able to communicate to their handlers whether or not an explosive is present. Jackson wants to give the dogs a way to communicate more nuanced information—like explosive types and danger levels—with specially designed wearable electronics.

Researchers at the Open University’s Animal-Computer Interaction Lab, meanwhile, are developing interactive technologies designed specifically for animals, with the aim of improving both animal and human welfare. For instance, they’ve developed a device for cancer-detecting dogs which measures their sniffing patterns and shows how strong a scent they’re picking up. They’re also working on adapting household items for use by service dogs—think dog-friendly doorknobs and light switches.

It makes sense that much of the initial research in animal-computer interaction has focused on dogs. They’re social animals with some level of language understanding, which makes it relatively easy to program communication devices that let them “talk back.” But, according to WIRED, researchers are also developing systems that will help humans communicate with dolphins, sensors that monitor the well-being of non-domestic animals, and even cat-human video games. WIRED explains, “The point is, with the right interface, animals can tell us all kinds of things.”

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