Artificial Intelligence Will Help Us Communicate With Animals

blond happy girl with her chihuahua doggy portrait

Many pet owners consider their animals to be a member of the family much like a son or daughter. But what if we could take our relationships a step further by using technology to communicate with animals? This may soon become a reality as scientists implement artificial intelligence to decode the disparate dialects of our zoological friends.

Communicating with Animals

There have been attempts in the past to create translation devices that can interpret animal sounds and their meaning. Some of these attempts have utterly failed or simply mimic animal sounds, while others have had slightly more success, translating a few sounds that refer to mundane concepts like food. Though some of these endeavors have been exciting or novel at first, they haven’t reached the ability to truly translate what’s going on inside those furry noggins in real-time – at least not yet.

While much of this technology is being used to study animals in the wild, someday soon it may be parlayed into a device for consumers to talk to your dog or cat. Finally, you’ll be able to express to Fido just how much he means to you, or really show your disappointment when he pees on the rug.

The man who is most often touted as leading the charge in decoding bestial lingo is Dr. Constantine Slobodchikoff, the real-life Dr. Doolittle. Slobodchikoff is an expert in animal language and while studying prairie dogs, he learned that the animals use advanced verbal communication to warn each other of predators.

 

Three playing prairie dogs

 

Prairie dogs are able to identify and communicate characteristics about perceived threats such as a predator’s height, weight, size, and color. They use a number of different phonemes to distinguish physical traits and can even remember certain characteristics from the past. Not only do these animals use verbs and nouns, but they consider syntax when gossiping with each other. Maybe that little guy was calling to his friend Allen… or was it Steve?

Slobodchikoff was able to catalog these sounds in order to synthesize their language into English. He’s using artificial intelligence to maintain and develop this catalog, allowing the computer to learn on its own in order to translate the animal jargon to a greater extent.

But Slobodchikoff says that a bias exists among biologists and linguists, with some believing that animals are only able to communicate, they can’t really express emotions or have conversations that aren’t founded solely on instinct. Though most pet owners would hotly contest this if you asked them if their pet has feelings or a personality.

 

Curious puppy lying on the floor and looking at laptop

 

Among the scientific consensus in this field, there isn’t a universal agreement on a common level of consciousness across all species, but scientists studying the gorilla, Koko, have proven that apes are more than capable of thought and feeling. Koko has over 2,000 English words in her vernacular and has expressed emotions, including embarrassment and happiness.

 

Researchers Learn How to Talk to Animals

The first effective animal translator was the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry, or CHAT, translator. A team of scientists studying a particular group of dolphins decoded whistles and their meanings. One day while swimming with the pod, the CHAT translated one dolphin’s whistle to the word sargassum, a type of seaweed.

Dolphins are some of the most intriguing animals for scientists to study, as they are considered to be the second most intelligent animal on Earth next to humans. Scientists have conducted profound studies of porpoises, with one scientist even developing a romantic relationship with the dolphin she was studying. Another project resulted in evidence that dolphins are capable of creating their own distinct culture.

One group of dolphins was observed wearing sea sponges on their beaks to protect themselves from sharp rocks and coral when hunting for fish on the sea floor. But not all dolphins show this behavior when its easier to find fish in open water. The dolphins that do use sponges pass down the technique to their children and typically associate more with other sponge-wearing fashionistas, showing evidence of cultural dissemination. If dolphins exhibit this level of intelligence, what more could we learn from the further development of CHAT?

In Sweden, a company called Gavagai AB is developing a program using AI analysis software to decipher dolphin-speak. The program has already mastered 40 human languages.

Gavagai’s software for decoding human language is currently used to glean information about the type of emotion a speaker is exuding, and companies interested in this utility believe that decoding dolphin will further that capability.

 

Head of dolphin with an open mouth in the blue water

 

This same technology is being used in translating the tongues of other animals, including rhesus macaques and white-cheeked gibbons. So far, it has recorded subtleties distinguishing hundreds of different gibbon calls. These animals make “hoo” sounds that have different patterns and intonations tied to different concepts and words. Scientists then feed these to a computer that maps out their meaning and context.

With Google Translate’s artificial intelligence system, human languages are being learned and translated at an exponential rate. It was recently noticed that the technology was showing improvements overnight that would trump the advancements it had made over its entire lifetime. When this type of technology is applied to translators aimed at animal language, scientists like Slobodchikoff believe it will lead to a pet translator on the market within the next decade. Are you ready to converse with your pet?



Tech Start-Up Offers to Upload Clients' Consciousness to Computer

computer laptop connected to brain clipping path

The tech start-up accelerator, Y Combinator, is investing in a company aiming to upload consciousness into a computer simulation at some point in the future when the technology exists. The one catch? You’re guaranteed to die first.

Through a combination of cryonics and embalming the brain, a company called Nectome hopes to posthumously preserve its clients’ brain tissue, under the assumption that uploading our consciousness to a computer is an inevitable future prospect. But in order for this to happen, Nectome must euthanize its clients in the process.

The company, whose slogan reads, “Committed to the goal of archiving your mind,” has recently attracted the attention of silicon valley execs who have become enamored with the prospect of living indefinitely. In addition to receiving blood transfusions from healthy teenagers, older tech luminaries are exploring the possibility that technological advancements could one day lead to immortality. At least for those who can afford it.

Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, said, “I assume my brain will be uploaded to the cloud.”

 

Uploading consciousness

 

Altman and other investors have put down a refundable $10,000 deposit, to one day have their brains embalmed and stored, though the company hasn’t been able to prove that memory can be revived from dead brain tissue.

Nectome plans to take advantage of a recent piece of legislation passed in California, known as the End of Life Option Act, which allows for physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. The company is also straightforward with its clients, calling its product “100 percent fatal.”

So why would prospective clients enthusiastically pay for something guaranteed to kill them?

“The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide.” Nectome’s co-founder Robert McIntyre said, “Product-market fit is people believing that it works.”

McIntyre and cofounder Michael McCanna were recently able to acquire the corpse of a woman whose brain they were able to preserve a couple hours after she passed away. They described their process, known as aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation, as “a fancy form of embalming that preserves, not just the outer details, but the inner details.”

The company recently won a significant federal grant for its use of a technique developed by MIT neuroscientist, Edward Boyden, that successfully preserved a pig’s brain, so every synapse could be seen through an electron microscope.

The idea of uploading consciousness, also known as the singularity, has been explored in sci-fi literature and film, including the Matrix and recent episodes of Black Mirror. The concept overlaps with the idea that our reality as we know it, may potentially be a computer simulation. Thought leaders in the tech world, including Elon Musk, said he believes there is a one in billions chance we are living in “base reality,” or a completely organic reality.

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