Will Translation Devices Soon Allow Us To Talk With Animals?

talk to animalsThe 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.

15 Comments on "Will Translation Devices Soon Allow Us To Talk With Animals?"

  1. Rus Archer | Jun 17, 2013 at 11:56 am |

    but will men and women understand each other?

  2. I’m wondering how long it’ll be before there is a smartphone app that does accurate text and audio translations in real time from one human language to another.

  3. emperorreagan | Jun 17, 2013 at 2:28 pm |

    People have been learning to read their dogs and cats’ body language & other sounds for centuries at this point without a fancy electronic device to translate. I can tell when my dogs want to go outside, when they want up on the bed, when they want to be left alone to nap, when they’re hungry, when they need water… unless they’re going to offer me granularity like “my stomach hurts, my side hurts, etc.” then it doesn’t seem like a translator would be of much value.

    People have had to read the body language, sounds, behaviors, etc. of other animals throughout history, too, as a matter of survival. What are the bird or monkeys doing? What’s their chatter sound like? What does the deer’s posture say? Is it alert and aware of you?

    I’d argue that human exploitation isn’t due to a lack of some particular electronic device to mediate their relationship with animals. Human exploitation is in part thanks to having too many things to mediate our relationship with nature – from factory farms to climate controlled enclosures.

    Suppose you can communicate? Is anyone going to go talk to a cow at a slaughter house? Do you need to, in order to get a sense of its terror? Or is it going to be a novelty for rich people to talk to their designer pets?

    • Anarchy Pony | Jun 17, 2013 at 4:12 pm |

      “Or is it going to be a novelty for rich people to talk to their designer pets?”

      That one.

      • Eric_D_Read | Jun 17, 2013 at 7:18 pm |

        Imagine how many of them find out that even their pets can’t stand them, especially people who dress their little ratdogs up in outfits and talk baby talk to them.

        • Anarchy Pony | Jun 17, 2013 at 7:28 pm |

          Ha! You call them ratdogs too? God I hate people that do baby talk… It’s so demeaning to themselves and the animals.

          • Eric_D_Read | Jun 18, 2013 at 7:59 am |

            “Who’s my little bupsy wupsykins?”
            Ratdog: “Fuck you bitch! Get me out of this stupid outfit, then choke on a cupcake and die!”

  4. mannyfurious | Jun 17, 2013 at 3:07 pm |

    I’m still wondering if humans can communicate with each other. Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves here?

  5. i don’t think its really possible because I don’t think animals conceptualize like we do. even some words and phrases in other languages can’t be translated into English. except very crudely. so if it can be done, it will be very crude.
    I believe technology atrophies our senses and abilities by crudely replacing them. perhaps this animal “language” translator will lead to the atrophy of empathy with animals. Empathy is a more accurate way to communicate w/ animal cause they are feelers more than thinkers.
    Anyway, John Lilly already discovered we can communicate with animals if we take LSD and disociatives like ketamine w/ them.

  6. I Have cats right now that i picked up in Miami.
    I grew up with cats that were born and raised in Tampa.

    They have completely different demeanors, and the miami cats make certain kinds of noises that I’ve never heard cats make.

    As fractured as human language is, what makes us think we can create “universal” animal translators when there are differences of language even only 300 or 400 miles? I expect the smaller the animal the shorter that distance needs to be.

    Assuming animals have no culture, and all actions can be chocked up to simple inborn instincts that robots can figure out is lazy and unhelpful.

  7. BuzzCoastin | Jun 17, 2013 at 7:17 pm |

    anybody who has worked with animals for any length of time
    already has this translation device

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