The Atlantic speaks with Con Slobodchikoff, a professor of animal behavior at Northern Arizona University, who has spent 30 years decoding animal communications and believes we are approaching the point of breaching the human-animal language divide:
A computer science colleague of mine and I are using artificial intelligence techniques to keep a computer record of the call that prairie dogs were making, analyze it with these AI techniques, and then spit back the answer to us, which potentially could be in English. And then we could tell the computer something that we wanted to convey to the prairie dogs. And the computer could then synthesize the sounds and play it back to the prairie dogs.
The [prairie dogs] have word-like phonemes, combining those into sentence-like calls. They have social chatter. They can distinguish between types of predators that are nearby — dogs, coyotes, humans — and seem to have developed warnings that specify the predators’ species and size and color.
I think we have the technology now to be able to develop the devices that are, say, the size of a cellphone, that would allow us to talk to our dogs and cats. So the dog says “bark!” and the device analyzes it and says, “I want to eat chicken tonight.” Or the cat can say “meow,” and it can say, “You haven’t cleaned my litterbox recently.”
I’m hoping that down the road, we will be forming partnerships with animals, rather than exploiting animals. A lot of people either exploit animals, or they’re afraid of animals, or they have nothing to do with animals because they don’t think that animals have anything to contribute to their lives. And once people get to the point where they can start talking to animals, I think they’ll realize that animals are living, breathing, thinking beings, and that they have a lot to contribute to people’s lives.
Cats have something like 35 vocalizations. Plus, they have a variety of body language signals. Dogs also have body language signals. They have a variety of different vocalizations with barks. As for other animals, a lot of them either have clear-cut language, or at least are pointing to the possibility that they have language. So at this point, it’s premature to say that all animals have language, because we simply don’t have that information. But I can say that a lot of animals have language.