Meet Con Slobodchikof, who is currently working on an algorithm that could translate the sounds and body movements of animals into English. Slobodchikoff, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences at the Northern Arizona University, has spent decades researching prairie dogs. His conclusion: these North American rodents communicate using a sophisticated language comprising of differently pitched chirps and barks.
According to Slobodchikoff, prairie dogs use different noises to warn each other about the type and size of a potential predator. Their language is so sophisticated, he says, that they can specify the color of a person's clothes.
Slobodchikoff has already developed a tool that converts the chirps and barks of a prairie dog into a language we humans can understand. Now, he hopes to do the same with the animals we interact with on a daily basis – our pets.
“I thought, if we can do this with prairie dogs, we can certainly do it with dogs and cats,” Slobodchikoff told NBC News.
Despite their dopey reputation, studies have shown that canines are actually quite good at understanding – and manipulating – their owners. After centuries of co-habitation, man's best friend can read your mood – a fact most pet owners will attest to. Recent research also seems to suggest that dogs can understand human language and they even show signs of reading between the lines. (One particularly clever collie can grasp more than 1,000 English words.) But there is no doubt that technology could make human-to-pet communication a hell of a lot easier.
Slobodchikoff’s company, Zoolingua, has already started stockpiling thousands of clips of dogs "communicating" through body language and vocalizations. These will later be fed into an algorithm that translates the facial expressions, body movements, and sounds of pets into English.
There is a small issue. The algorithm relies on humans to interpret animal "language", a fact that could be problematic because we tend to anthropomorphize animals. To work around this, Slobodchikoff will use the growing body of scientific research that uses careful experiments, not guesswork, to work out the meaning behind an animal's movements and sounds. The end result, he says, is a pet translator that will literally decode a dog’s bark (or a cat's meow) into English, such as “I want to eat now” or “I want to go for a walk”.
Researchers have already cracked the vocalizations of primates. Perhaps then, the idea of an animal translator à la Pixar's Up is not so far-fetched after all.
[H/T: NBC News]