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

And the jump-yip! I'd love to know more about what the jump-yip actually means -- if it means anything.

Slobodchikoff: Yes, and we don't know. But the jump-yip is really interesting because it's used in so many different contexts. And one of the things that people have not looked at is whether the jump-yip's acoustic properties differ from one context to another. Because it sort of sounds the same to us, but then the alarm chirp that I started working with sounded the same, at first, too, for coyotes and for dogs and for humans. Now, I can take anybody out and I can point out in about half a day what the differences are. And if they have any sort of musical ability, they can say, "Oh, yes, that's a coyote," or "Yes, that's a dog," and so on.

But nobody has really done that stuff with the jump-yips. And some of the time, the prairie dogs just do the jump-yip when it looks like there's no other context except them feeling good.

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.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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