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Monday, 9 September 2013

Robo-WOOF! What's happening in dog-human communication technology?

(Source)
Hey Julie,
Thank you for the gorgeous congratulations for winning I'm a Scientist, get me out of here! - what an amazing experience! So many students engaged in science and asking questions that made my head spin - fabulous, fabulous stuff! I learned so much!

One of the questions that came up a few times during the live chat sessions with student classes was about communication between dogs and people. I was asked "Do you think dogs will ever be able to talk to humans?" and "Why don't dogs talk? Why do they only bark?", as well as "Do dogs understand us? How?" and "Could we use technology to communicate with dogs?" - you see? They kept me on my toes!

My initial reactions were to say, "Dogs DO talk to us! They use their body language and their vocalisations extremely well, it's just that people aren't always fluent in listening to what they're telling us!" I also told them all about Chaser and her 1,200+ words, about the fact dogs' senses are different to ours (a much less visual, much more sniffy kind of a world).

Then one student said, "But what about this?":

 
Now Julie, I don't know about YOU, but somehow, I missed out on this 'BowLingual' device when it was launched in the early noughties. It's a: 
"computer-based dog-to-human language translation device developed by Japanese toy company Takara and first sold in Japan in 2002. Versions for South Korea and the United States were launched in 2003. The device was named by Time Magazine as a "Best Invention of 2002." The inventors of BowLingual, Keita Satoh, Dr. Matsumi Suzuki and Dr. Norio Kogure were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for "promoting peace and harmony between the species.
The device is presented as a "translator" but has been called an "emotion analyzer". It is said to use technology to categorize dog barks into one of six standardized emotional categories. BowLingual also provides a phrase which is representative of that emotion. The product instructions clearly state that these phrases "are for entertainment purposes only" and are not meant to be accurate translations of each bark."
I totally endorse all those disclaimers, especially after reading this review by Dr Sophia Yin, but also can't help thinking if this 'toy' device can register a dog's bark and then categorize the dog's mood as happy, sad, on guard, assertive, frustrated or needy - couldn't we just listen and do the same ourselves? I mean, you know that, right? You recently covered the latest scientific findings regarding what dogs' barks are telling us, over at Scientific American and The Bark (ha!).  

So why can't we just listen? Learn? I certainly know the difference between my dogs' barks as to whether there's someone strange approaching our front door versus a family member or if they're just playing when I'm down the other end of our house. I'm teaching my daughter to tell the difference too. She's learning and she's just turned three.  

So is it really that hard? Or are people just lazy?



On the definitely-not-a-toy side of things, a Google Glass researcher has teamed up with a Georgia Institute of Technology professor to create FIDO (Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations) as wearable technology for working dogs to enable better communication with handlers. 


FIDO works by giving a service or detection dog a special sensor that can attach to its collar of a vest. The dog can interact with the sensor by biting, tugging or touching it with their nose and the handler will receive a corresponding signal ("bomb ahead", "hurricane alarm sounding" or "you have pancreatic cancer" are all examples given for different working dog contexts) as an audio or display cue. You can read more about FIDO in an interview with the professor from Georgia Tech here. 

Then there's the ICPooch, that's currently seeking funding via Kickstarter. The brain child of an entrepreneurial 13 year old (yep, you read that correctly) from the UK, the ICPooch promises to let you video talk with your dog (and deliver a treat cookie!) from anywhere in the world. 

Like this:





What do you think? Gimmick or something that has the potential to actually reduce separation anxiety in dog when their owners are away? Think dogs could potentially be remote trained by professional dog trainers? I wonder how well the dogs can actually SEE the display and whether they would respond differently to different people who 'dial in'. 

Very interested to hear your thoughts on this - hope you're well!

Mia

Further reading:

Tan D., Fitzpatrick G., Gutwin C., Begole B., Kellogg W.A., Paldanius M., Kärkkäinen T., Väänänen-Vainio-Mattila K., Juhlin O. & Häkkilä J. (2011) Communication technology for human-dog interaction: exploration of dog owners' experiences and expectations, Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2641. DOI:

Kerepesi A., Jonsson G.K., Miklósi Á., Topál J., Csányi V. & Magnusson M.S. (2005). Detection of temporal patterns in dog–human interaction, Behavioural Processes, 70 (1) 69-79. DOI:

© 2013 Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog?