Scientists are closing in on technology to talk to animals

Jan 19, 2016 at 5:38 p.m. ET
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If you ever find yourself wishing your pet would answer back when you talk to it, then you're in luck. The technology that could make that possible might be close at hand.

Melody Jackson, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, is working on new ways to improve pet-person communication by tenfold. She's focusing specifically on service dogs because their need to communicate is somewhat more urgent than the average pet dog.

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Right now she's working on a computerized vest that will actually allow the dog wearer to ask a stranger for help. How it works is the dog is taught to pull a lever on the vest that activates this recorded phrase: "My handler needs you to come with me!" Pretty cool, huh?

She told Wired that when people hear it for the first time, “they jump back 3 feet because the dog is talking." I imagine it's a bit more jarring than the dog from Up. The dog can also use the jacket to trigger SOS alerts with GPS coordinates in case it can't remember exactly where it left its master.

The theory behind starting to test this communication technology on dogs, especially service dogs, is they're more apt to want to have a dialogue with their human counterparts. They're social by nature and seem to be able to understand certain aspects of language. They're also hypersensitive to changes in the environment that humans may not detect. That's why dogs are often used to find bombs, guide blind people, even detect cancer.

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Up until this point, service dogs could only really use their bark to alert someone or answer "yes" to a question. Now with technology like Jackson's vest, they'll be able to be much more specific. They'll be able to denote danger levels, types of obstacles in the case of blind people and severity of emergency. This specificity could end up saving thousands of lives.


And they're far from the only animal getting a shot at animal-computer interaction for the sake of communication. Some scientists are working on innovative technology that will help dolphins communicate with humans. Jackson herself is also working on another vest that will allow horses to communicate signs of lameness. However, there is one animal in particular that has proven she doesn't need technology to talk to us — Ms. Koko the gorilla.

But for the ones without opposable thumbs for signing, these tech breakthroughs could be the beginning of a whole new way of interacting with the animal kingdom. Researchers at the Animal-Computer Interaction Lab are actually using the sniffing patterns of cancer dogs to devise a device that may denote the severity of a particular cancer case. They're also working on dog-friendly light switches and doorknobs for dog owners who have trouble getting around the house.

While all this sounds pretty great and revolutionary, I'm not so sure I'd want to give my cats the ability to talk to me. Yes, it would be helpful if they could tell me when they're hurt or sick, but I feel like they would spend most of the time saying "play!" and "food!" to me over and over and over again. And, of course, everyone remembers Steve from Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, right?

Image: Tumblr

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