The ability to understand animals has been a long recurring concept in science fiction, but it seems we may be on the verge of creating devices that would enable us to understand animals, at the very least our pets. This is what was recently predicted by “The Next Big Thing”, an Amazon-sponsored book that predicts trends and inventions in the near future.
According to Con Slobodchikoff, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, a pet translation device could be created within the next decade. Slobodchikoff wants to create the device that will allow people to understand the barks and meows of their cats and dogs.
The Language of Prairie Dogs
Slobodchikoff is best known for his work with prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are capable of making a number of different squeaks, and though your average person wouldn’t detect a difference between the squeaks, Slobodchikoff has studied them for decades and he knows that the barks of the prairie dog actually form a very sophisticated language.
Slobodchikoff and his research team noted that when the prairie dogs would observe the researchers their vocalizations would change. The researchers recorded and analyzed the barks the prairie dogs made, looking for patterns that corresponded to events observed in the prairie dog fields. Prairie dog language is actually made up of a series of different tones at different frequencies and speed. This means that prairie dogs don’t just call out about a generic type of danger, they actually have different “words” for humans, coyotes, and hawks. Prairie dogs can even communicate a surprising amount of detail about objects they see. Slobochikoff says they can say things like “There’s a tall human wearing red approaching,” and “There’s a short human wearing blue over there.”
Slobodchikoff and his team discovered this by having different volunteers walk through a prairie dog field. They were all dressed the same, except that they wore different colored shirts. Every volunteer walked through the prairie dog community four different times, wearing different colors of shirts. The vocalizations of the prairie dogs were different when the colors of the shirts were different. The chitter of the prairie dogs wasn’t just different when they wore different colored shirts, it was also different when the person walking through the field was different. This suggests that the prairie dogs were actually noting differences about the volunteer, like the height of the person, in addition to what color shirt they were wearing.
The research team then set up the second series of experiments. This time the experimenters constructed wooden towers on either side of the field containing the prairie dogs. The researchers put a length of wire between the two towers and ran a series of shapes across the wire, all while recording the vocalizations of the prairie dogs. The shapes were made up of circles, triangles, and squares. The prairie dogs were able to discern differences between the triangles and circles, though they didn’t seem to vocalize differences between the circles and squares.
Do Animals Really Have Languages?
Many are skeptical that animals have languages, or at least any language sophisticated enough for humans to have a conversation with them. Given the desire to anthropomorphize animals, it may be easy to write off the idea of animals having a translatable language as idle fantasy, and say that prairie dogs or other animals aren’t “describing” objects in any meaningful sense, so much as it is a projection we place upon them.
Yet for Slobodchikoff and many other researchers of animal behavior and communication, this argument is a non-starter. The argument has a pernicious form of anthropocentrism about it for the many biologists who study the communication of animals, a kind of arrogance that believes only humans possess the fabled quality of language.
Indeed, Slobodchikoff’s research suggesting animals can have sophisticated languages has been supported by other studies. Klaus Zuberbühler, a primatologist, did research into the various screeches and calls that monkeys living on the Ivory Coast of Africa make. Zuberbühler and his team found that the monkeys had distinct phrases which could be modified by adding a or dropping an “Ooo” sound, essentially they utilized suffixes. The monkeys combine phrases to deliver instructions to one another. “Come this way, there’s a leopard near you!”
While other scientists may not be as ready as Slobodchikoff to say that other animals possess translatable language, it is a growing scientific consensus that many animals at least have some form pseudo-language. Various birds, bees, octopuses, and a variety of other mammals have some version of consciousness and a method of communicating their experiences to others. Animals like the Japanese great tit songbird are able to use different sets of notes to encourage other birds to move closer or away from them, and even tell other birds to look around for danger. Other primates can even be taught to communicate with humans through sign language. For these reasons, Slobodchikoff and other researchers believe it is more a question of “when”, not “if” humans will ever develop devices capable of communicating with other animals.
Looking To The Future
Slobodchikoff and his team have already managed to create a tool capable of converting the barks of prairie dogs into a language that humans are capable of interpreting. He believes it is possible to create a similar device for people’s pets and is in the process of trying to develop one right now. Zoolingua is Slobochikoff’s company, and the company has amassed a substantial database covering the body language and vocalizations of dogs. All of this data will be given to a machine learning algorithm that will then make associations between body movements/vocalizations and English, translating the communication of pets into English at the end of the process.
Humans have a natural tendency to anthropomorphize the communication of animals, meaning that there’s a danger of translating animal communication into something we want to hear or see, rather than what the animal is actually communicating. To safeguard against this bias, Zoolingua will be using only data that comes from rigorously done scientific experiments to quantify the meaning of an animal’s communication. Zoolingua and Slobodchikoff hope to have a working translator capable of letting you understand your cat is saying “Please feed me” when it meows, within a decade.