Hear, boy? Pet translators are ruffly a decade away

Amazon believes animal translation machines could be available in 10 years

Imagine talking to a tiger, chatting to a cheetah, as Dr Doolittle once sang – what a neat achievement that would be. Well, Amazon has revealed that the animal-loving doctor's ambition might not be entirely fantasy.

Pet translators that can turn woofs into words and make sense of miaows, might really be on the horizon, according to a report backed by the internet retailer.

Futurologist William Higham of Next Big Thing, who co-authored the report for Amazon, says he believes devices that can talk dog could be less than 10 years away.

“Innovative products that succeed are based around a genuine and major consumer needs. The amount of money now spent on pets – they are becoming fur babies to so many people – means there is huge consumer demand for this. Somebody is going to put this together,” he says.


Higham pointed to the work being done by Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus at the department of biological sciences at Northern Arizona University, who has spent 30 years studying the behaviour of prairie dogs, which are actually not dogs at all but north American rodents.

The author of Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals used AI software to help analyse prairie dog calls, finding they had “a sophisticated communication system that has all the aspects of language”.

“They have words for different species of predator and can describe the colour of clothes of a human, or the coat of coyotes or dogs.,” Slobodchikoff says.

He is now so convinced that other animals use similarly decipherable language that he is attempting to raise money to develop a cat and dog translation device.

Slobodchikoff says: “So many people would dearly love to talk to their dog or cat or at least find out what they are trying to communicate. A lot of people talk to their dogs and share their innermost secrets. With cats I’m not sure what they’d have to say. A lot of times it might just be “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone”.

During the past few years, advances in the field of machine learning have led to dramatic improvements in automatic speech recognition and translation. Algorithms learn to interpret language by training on huge datasets rather than being pre-programmed with a set of inflexible rules.

But Juliane Kaminski, a psychologist at Portsmouth University who works on interactions between humans and dogs, is less optimistic that we will soon be able to decipher barks and bow-wows – mainly because she does not think that the way a dog woofs can be viewed as a language. "We would not describe dogs' forms of communication as language in the scientific sense," she says. But: "They do give out rudimentary signals of what they want and how they're feeling."

For instance, she says, a right-sided tail wag is positive while a wag to the left not so positive. “That’s something humans might not so easily pick up on,” said Kaminski – although a translation device might have difficulty spotting that, too.

Dogs’ barks, she says, are also context specific. They give out different yaps and yowls during play, aggression, when they are missing their owner and so on, but even people who have never owned a dog are fairly good at decoding these utterances.

Kaminski says a translation device might make things easier for people who lack intuition or young children who misinterpret signals “sometimes quite significantly”.

One study, for instance, found that when young children were shown a picture of a dog with menacingly bared teeth, they concluded that the dog was “happy” and “smiling” and that they would like to hug it. An interpretation device might be able to warn of danger.

Amazon already sells one device that transfers a human voice into miaows using samples from 25 cats (One review says “the cat seems puzzled”). And the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery, a small Scandinavian research lab led by artists and marketeers, attempted to develop a dog translation device called No More Woof a few years ago. The project was put “on pause” according to co-founder Per Cromwell when they realised the scale of the challenge.

The gadget, which looked like a Madonna-style headset, supposedly measured brain activity to help communicate what the dog was thinking via a speaker on their collar. “It needed more research,” admits Cromwell who has gone on to instead develop bicycle-powered mobile coffee stalls.

Tomas Mazetti, who was also involved in the project, said: "It was extremely limited. It could tell you the dog was tired or angry. But you can kind of see that anyway."

– Guardian Service