A retired Northern Arizona University biology professor says a device that could provide humans with a basic idea of what dogs are thinking could be developed within the next 10 years, or even as few as two years.
Con Slobodchikoff says the device would decode a canine’s vocalizations, facial expressions and actions and then tell the human user what the dog is trying to say.
There are some far less scientific, far more gimmicky types of devices already on the market, but what Slobodchikoff is proposing — and attempting to raise money for — would be as simple as pointing your cell phone at your pet to get a translation of what he is trying to communicate.
Slobodchikoff, who spent decades researching prairie dog communication at NAU, says the technology would hinge on an artificial intelligence program that would learn to recognize animal sounds and actions through videos and pictures.
“The program would synthesize all of it, then tell the person the dog says ‘I want to go for a walk’ or ‘you’re scaring me, back off please,'” Slobodchikoff told the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff.
We’d point out here that the average dog owner is probably already getting such messages from his dog non-verbally. And we’d guess that “let’s go for a walk” or “isn’t it time for dinner” would account for 90 percent of any messages the device picked up.
Then again, what dog owner doesn’t want to get a little deeper into his dog’s head.
People like to think of their dogs as thinking, feeling beings and want to respond to them in some way, Slobodchikoff said. “But they don’t know what their dogs are trying to say to them.”
He says between two million and three million dogs are euthanized each year for behavioral problems, and that most of those problems arise because of a lack of communication between people and their dogs.
Last year, Slobodchikoff started the company Zoolingua to develop animal communication technology.
The timeline for developing a working translation device depends on how much money he and his partners can raise, he said. “If we get a lot of money we can do it in two to five years, not as much money then it probably will be 10 years.”
He hopes to perfect a device for dogs, then expand it to cats, horses, other domestic animals, and possibly wild animals someday.
Before he retired from NAU about seven years ago, Slobodchikoff’s research focused on analyzing the calls of prairie dogs that live around Flagstaff.
Upon further analysis, he found that the prairie dogs’ alarm calls had a structure similar to the nouns and adjectives used in human sentences. The animals also had different dialects, he said. You can read more about his work with prairie dogs in this New York Times article.
“People see … that they’re not just this nuisance ground squirrel that digs burrows. They really are a complex animal that has unique personalities. Hopefully people can relate to that in a different way so that makes them stop and think a little bit before they just decide to shoot one or poison one on their property just because they don’t like it.”
After retiring, Slobodchikoff wrote the book “Chasing Doctor Dolittle,” in which he explored the languages of everything from whales to honeybees.
“Many animals do have language but we humans simply have not been listening,” he said.