Animal Behaviorist: We'll Soon Have Devices That Let Us Talk With Our Pets

So, besides the jump-yip research that obviously needs to be conducted, what other kind of work would you like to see being done in this area? With prairie dogs, or just with animal communication more generally?

Slobodchikoff: Well, one of the things we're starting to do with prairie dogs is something that I think can be extended to animal language in general. A computer science colleague of mine and I are using artificial intelligence techniques to keep a computer record of the call that the prairie dogs were making, analyze it with these AI techniques, and then spit back the answer to us, which potentially could be in English. So the prairie dogs could say something like "thin brown coyote approaching quickly." 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.

So 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."

But if we're going to get to that technology, it's going to take some research. And it's probably five to 10 years out. But I think we can get to the point where we can actually communicate back and forth in basic animal languages to dogs, cats, maybe farm animals -- and, who knows, maybe lions and tigers.

It's fascinating, thought-experiment-wise, to consider what that might mean for the whole relationship between humans and animals. Paradigms would be shifted, for sure.

Slobodchikoff: Yeah. It would be world-changing. Consider that, for example, 40 percent of all households in America have dogs, 33 percent have cats -- at least one cat, at least one dog. And consider that something like 4 million dogs are euthanized every year because of behavioral problems. Well, most problems are because of the lack of communication between animal and human. The human can't get across to the animal what the human expects, and the animal can't get across to the human what it's experiencing. And if we had a chance to talk back and forth, the dog could say, "You're scaring me." And you could say, "Well, I'm sorry, I didn't realize that I was scaring you. I'll give you more space."

What I'm hoping, actually, is 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.

And is it fair to assume that language will be a vehicle for that partnership -- in other words, that most of these animals do actually have language, in some capacity? Even if you narrow the pool down to, say, just domestic dogs and cats, do you feel pretty confident that, should such a device come to fruition, we'd actually have animal-language data to seed it with?

Slobodchikoff: Yeah. 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. Both dogs and cats also use odor, which we're not very good at detecting -- we don't really know what odors mean. And I don't think that, in the near future, we'll be able to use odors in the computerized analysis that I was describing. But we certainly would be able to use sounds. And we probably would, now, with video-capture techniques and facial recognition technology and so on, be able to monitor body language as well. So I think that at least on two of those fronts, we'll be able to get somewhere.

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.

Why, then, have we resisted that idea so strongly? Why do we talk about "animal communication," but not "animal language"?

Slobodchikoff: If you talk to most biologists, philosophers, and linguists, they will tell you that we humans are the only ones who are capable of language. And all the other animals are incapable of that -- all they can do is communicate. So we have that kind of bias, generally speaking. It's not an accepted thing to talk about in biological and philosophical and linguistic circles.

So the bias comes from a kind of possessiveness when it comes to language -- the claim that language is a fundamental part of what makes humans, ultimately, human?

Slobodchikoff: Right. I think that, for the most part, there is the thought that we humans have to be really special -- and language is part of what makes us special. Back when I was a graduate student, people used to talk about (at that time, quaintly) "man" as a tool-user -- the only one who was capable of using tools. Well, then we found that lots of animals could make tools, as well. So then the story shifted: humans were the only ones with culture. And then we found that lots of other animals have culture. So then we had language as the only other thing that distinguishes us from other animals. And now we're finding out that lots of other animals have language.

So the idea of animal language rocks the world of people who would like there to be a big gulf between humans and the rest of the animals, and who would like humans to be completely special.

But, you know, I tell people: We are special. You don't see whales and dolphins having conversations about nuclear physics.

Right. (That we know of, at least!) And these ideas -- talking to animals, and thinking of them as capable of talking in the first place -- would seem to be liberating from a scientific perspective, too. There's so much to learn: To what extent, for example, do animals experience emotion? Obviously they do ... but how can we actually understand the nuances of that from our human perspective?

Slobodchikoff: Absolutely. In my book, I present a new theory called the "discourse system theory" -- where I suggest that we've kind of been barking up the wrong tree. We've been looking at the signals that humans put out and that other animals put out, and think that that's language. But what we really should be looking at is the whole biological system that's involved in language production, language reception, language interpretation.

So in humans, for example, we have all of these specialized structures for language: we have vocal cords, we have a larynx, we have specialized structures in our brain, our lungs are adapted for manipulating air in certain ways. And when you look at other animals, they have similar kinds of structures that are adapted for producing these signals. And once we look at that, language makes more sense from a neurobiological and anatomical evolutionary standpoint. Once we start looking at the continuity of these systems, we can see the evolutionary continuity. And we can see that we're not alone there.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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