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Biologist Developing Pet Translator

February 7, 2018

While most pet owners are adept at figuring out what their dog or cat is trying to communicate, there are still times where people want to have a real conversation with their furry friends. That dream may soon be a reality thanks to one Northern Arizona University professor.

Dr. Con Slobodchikoff has devoted much of his career in biology to studying the communication among prairie dogs. These chirpy critters may seem an odd place to delve into animal languages, but it turns out prairie dogs have a surprisingly sophisticated means of “speaking.” During his studies, Dr. Slobodchikoff discovered they have distinct vocalizations for specific predators, can distinguish between predator size and threat level, and are capable of specifying the colors of people’s clothing.

His work has led to the development of an algorithm, which can translate prairie dog barks and chirps into English, essentially the world’s first interspecies translator. Dr. Slobodchikoff has recently collaborated with Zoolingua, a company developing technology that will translate the body movements, facial expressions, and sounds of pets into something we can understand. Zoolingua’s focus for their research has been man’s best friend, the dog. Dogs are wonderful test subjects in that they already demonstrate a deep understanding of human communication. The goal of their combined efforts is to take human-dog communication to the next level and develop something with mass-market appeal.

The dog translation system is still in the early development stage with videos of dogs moving, barking, and making facial expressions being analyzed by Dr. Slobodchikoff’s algorithm. The goal is to create a device, which could be pointed at a pet and then translate into English what the pet wants. Further development could make this a two-way communication tool where what is spoken by a person would be translated into a series of barks.

Even though we may one day be able to have a conversation with our pets, would we really want to? Think about it; if you tell your dog about your day at work would they really understand the nuances of office politics? Would they care about a recent break up or your thoughts on the latest blockbuster movie? Chances are it would be like talking to a toddler and end up being a mostly one-sided conversation. Who knows, maybe our pets are just waiting for the chance to tell us what is on their minds and end up surprising us all once they can.

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