Soon we will have devices that will enable our dogs to talk back to us.
“I talk to my dog all day long,” says Daisy Murphy of South Dublin. “He is an Australian Terrier, and I actually talk to him more than my husband. I’m sure he understands what I am saying and he’s a very good listener. I would love it if he could talk back to me though.”
Many people speak to their dog and are entirely convinced that their dog gets it. But there are other times when dog owners know their dog is trying to tell them something, but they just don’t understand. So what if you could really, REALLY understand what your best friend is trying to tell YOU?
Well that day will soon be here. Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed the technology to enhance communication between dogs and humans. Working on this exciting technology is Dr. David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science. “We’ve developed a platform for computer-mediated communication between humans and dogs. It opens the door to new avenues for interpreting dogs’ behavioural signals and sending them clear and unambiguous cues in return.”
They have a fully functional prototype, but are busy refining the design as they discover and learn more things along the way. The prototype is a harness that fits comfortably onto the dog. It is equipped with a variety of technologies. There are two types of communication technologies. One that allows humans to communicate with the dogs, and one that allows the dog to communicate with humans. Says Dr Roberts, “Dogs communicate primarily through body language. So one of our challenges was to develop sensors that tell us about their behaviour by observing their posture remotely. So we can determine when they’re sitting, standing, running, etc., even when they’re out of sight – a harness-mounted computer the size of a deck of cards transmits those data wirelessly. At the same time, we’ve incorporated speakers and vibrating motors into the harness, which enables us to communicate with the dog.”
The technology also includes physiological sensors that monitor things like heart rate and body temperature. The sensors not only track a dog’s physical well-being, but can offer information on a dog’s emotional state, such as whether it is excited or stressed. “We’re also very interested in addressing stress in working dogs, such as guide dogs for the blind,” says Sean Mealin, an NC State Ph.D. student. “This can help handlers identify and mitigate stress for the dogs, improving the length and quality of a dog’s life. It’s an important issue. Particularly because guide dogs are bred and trained not to display signs of stress in their behaviour.” The research team have already used the harness in dog training. They are now in the early stages of miniaturising the technologies and improving the physiological sensors. “This platform is an amazing tool, and we’re excited about using it to improve the bond between dogs and their humans,” says Dr. Barbara Sherman, a clinical professor of animal behaviour.
While this technology sounds amazing for pet owners, it is hard to believe that it might actually come true. Will we really be able to find out if our dog is stressed, hot, cold, hungry, or just wants to have a good whinge about the cat? The answer is yes, simply because of how many teams are frantically racing to get exactly this kind of product to market.
North Carolina State University have stiff competition for their translation device. In fact, another company might get there before them. The Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery (NSID) is working on a concept device that holds great promise. If all goes to plan, such a device will be able to speak for the dog, saying things like,
-This is splendid!
-Leave me alone.
-I am so very weary.
-Who are you?
-Um, why are you guys leaving?
The product, called “No More Woof” aims to let your dog speak its mind. NSID are currently building three different options of dog communication devices. A micro version can distinguish basic thought patterns, like tiredness, hunger and curiosity. This is the best option for those that are looking for something reasonably-priced to test out the technology. It will cost around €50. The next level of the device is a “standard” option with a more robust design than the micro version. It uses two sensors, enabling it to read more thought patterns. The price will be around €260. Then a superior model will have a speaker integrated into the device. The speaker sits in a golden dog-tag with an engraving of the owner’s choice. The owner could even choose the colour of the device, to let it blend in with their dog’s fur. This device uses algorithmic learning while in use; it will get to know the dog more closely the longer the dog wears the device. Over time this option lets your dog speak short sentences, like: “I’m hungry – but I don’t like this!” This superior model will have a price tag of €1065. But for dog lovers who want to communicate with their pets, no price is too high.
While all of these products are at the first stage of development, the promise they hold is exciting. The scientists at NSID say, “We can actually think of no cooler products. We’re basically building them because we want them ourselves. Two-way communication is the Holy Grail for us. Not only should you be able to understand your pet, we want to let them understand you too.”
During the last decade huge discoveries have been made to map out human brain functions. For instance there is a spectrum of specific electrical signals in the brain defining the feeling of tiredness. Some of the most easily detected neural patterns are: “I’m tired,” but also, “I’m hungry,” and “I’m curious, who that is?” and “I want to pee.” Animal brains are less complex than humans, so their signal patterns are more distinct for feelings of anger, curiosity or tiredness – actually making them easier to distinguish. But there is an additional hurdle with dogs. Says the team at NSID, “The task of producing these signals and analysing them is not simple. This is due to the high degree of muscle tissue surrounding most dogs’ skulls, which disrupt the signal. The trick of reading an animal’s mind is stripped down to a more or less complex deciphering problem. Right now we are only scraping the surface of possibilities; the project is only in its cradle. The first version will be quite rudimentary. But hey, the first computer was pretty crappy too.”
While every technology has to start somewhere, the fact that the first prototypes are functionally doing what they are supposed to – translating doggie into human – means that funding should be easily secured for these experimental labs. Says the team at NSID, “We have no doubt that in the future this technology will open up a vast new era of communication between dogs and humans, or animals in general and humans.”
Around the world, other teams are on the case. A team at Georgia Tech, headed up by Dr. Melody Jackson, is developing wearable technology that makes it easier for working dogs to communicate with their owners. The project is called FIDO – “Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations.” Dr Jackson has a highly specialised team, including a scientist who previously was the technical lead for Google Glass. They want for this technology to go all the way. They say that dog language is mostly postural. Therefore, they think that if they load a vest up with sensors, then they can tell owners and other humans what is going on with the dog by reading its body language. For example, if a dog bows down with their ears up and their tail up and wagging, it means they are happy. If they stand up on their tip-toes and their tail is still that’s an aggressive posture. This “activity recognition” is yet another way that scientists are trying to make dog-human translators happen.
Wicklow resident Aisling Ryan has a Jack Russell, called Jackie, and a German Shepherd named Millie. “Jackie is very outgoing and friendly, and thinks she is a total princess. She believes she was placed on this earth to be in total charge of everyone and everything. She feels she has trained us really well. This is typical of her breed. Millie is very reserved, shy, and a worrier. She loves to please, and is totally loyal (whereas Jackie will go with whoever is more fun at that time). Millie is very set in her ways, and hates been outside her comfort zone.”
So does Aisling understand what her dogs are trying to tell her most of the time? “Yes, in relation to normal things like walks, food, water, playing ball. Millie more than Jackie, because Jackie just does what she wants anyway. But Millie understands me totally, and freaks me out sometimes. The other night, when I was kissing her good night (yes I kiss her good night), I said to her, ‘Get me up at 6 a.m. so that I bring you for a walk. At 5.57 a.m. she comes in and starts throwing my runners around the room’.”
So does Aisling often wish she could chat with her dog and ask questions? “All the time, but I would worry about what they might actually tell me. I want to ask them if they are happy and what can I do to make them happier. Also is Millie okay with all her visits to the vet? But they also probably want to tell me to stop kissing, hugging and talking to them, and bring them for more walks. Oh and it’s totally acceptable to make my Mum sit in the back seat of the car and let Millie sit in the front.”
So would Aisling buy a device that promises to translate doggie into human? “Absolutely yes, and I would probably pay over the odds for it.” The promise of profit is the greatest motivator known to any inventor. So, with dog owners longing for the day they can properly communicate with their pets, the doggie translator is on its way. It’s not a matter of if, but when. And the team who cracks it is in for a giant financial windfall.
If you are a dog owner, the wait will soon be over. That doggie translator will be on the pet store shelves very soon. Be ready for when your dog announces that they have sold the cat on eBay.