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Real-life Doctor Dolittle aims to use A.I.-powered translator to talk to animals

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What pet owner hasn’t, at some point, looked at their nonpaying houseguest and wondered what it is that they’re saying with those meows, barks, or assorted other sounds they make? Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University, wonders too — to the point where he’s spent the past 30 years examining the behavior. And now he’s created an artificial intelligence (A.I.) startup so we won’t be left wondering for too much longer.

“We are increasingly finding that animals have languages of their own,” Slobodchikoff told Digital Trends. “In my book, Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, I show that many animals have either language or language-like abilities. In the past, it was difficult to decipher these languages, but now we have the tools with which we can do this. The goal of Zoolingua is to start with dogs — because many people do not understand what their dogs are trying to say to them — and, using A.I. technology, build a device that would allow people to communicate with their dogs. Once that is built, we plan to expand to devices that will allow people to communicate with cats, horses, cows, pigs, goats, and wild animals.”

Slobodchikoff’s research started out analyzing the high-pitched calls of prairie dogs, which he found contained a complex language capable of describing everything from the presence of a predator nearby (obvious) to the color of specific humans’ clothing (less obvious.) He then teamed up with a computer scientist colleague to turn those insights into a machine translation tool. It was this work that prompted the creation of Zoolingua in 2017.

Prairie Dogs: America's Meerkats - Language

The company’s work won’t just focus on spoken words, though. “We are in the process of building a device that will read dogs’ body language and vocalizations, and using A.I. technology and cloud computing, will tell people what their dog is saying to them in English,” he said. “At the present time, some 2 million to 3 million dogs are euthanized each year in the United States, primarily because of behavioral problems arising from an inability of dogs to communicate their needs to people. With this device, we will be able to drastically reduce behavioral problems and euthanizations of animals. Also, people love to talk to their dogs and think that their dogs understand them. This device will show people that dogs do indeed understand what is said to them, and even have their own thoughts and opinions.”

Slobodchikoff says that such a device is two to five years away, depending on funding. If it works as well as described, though, we’ll be the first in line to buy one. Let’s hope that Slobodchikoff and his colleagues are barking up the right tree!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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