Sit, Stay, Speak: New AI Tech Unlocks the Mind of Man’s Best Friend

By Betsy Vereckey, Contributor

Do dogs have feelings? Over the past decade, canine cognitive science has come a long way in answering that million-dollar question. New technologies reveal that man’s best friend—and other species—are able to experience a wide array of emotions, just like us.

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Recent research from a professor at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that dogs can feel complex emotions such as jealousy, while other studies, such as a 2015 study in Current Biology, demonstrate that they can discriminate expressions on human faces. And a 2016 study in Biology Letters found that dogs have the ability to recognize emotion from humans, as well as their canine counterparts.

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By leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies, researchers are demonstrating, in a variety of new and fascinating ways, how humans and animals show emotion through similar processes and behaviors. Moreover, industry experts hope that such advances in technology will allow humans to choose more effective behavioral remediation strategies, increase the possibility of finding homes for orphaned dogs, and decrease harmful instances of animal cruelty, which is now classified as a federal crime.

The Emotional Dog

If you’ve ever stood in front of your dog and wondered what he’s thinking, you’re in luck: Inupathy’s wearable dog collar shows owners what’s going on inside a dog’s mind, so you can tell if your good boy is happy or sad.

Inupathy, a mash-up of “insight” and “empathy”, functions by deciphering a dog’s emotion via a collar that has built-in sensors which capture your pet’s heartbeat information, also known as heart rate variability (HRV), not unlike a Fitbit. The device’s creator Joji Yamaguchi, a software engineer with a background in biology, identified specific patterns that corresponded to emotional states—like happy and concentrated—and created software within the collar that uses an algorithm to determine a dog’s current mood based on that data. Once the data is processed, LED bulbs in the collar change color to indicate which emotion the dog is feeling, such as deep blue (for most calm) to bright red (for most excited), thereby transforming your dog into a canine glow stick at the dog park. Yamaguchi’s device, which was sparked by his desire to better understand his corgi Akane, also boasts a 12-hour battery life, charges by USB, and comes in a range of sizes.

Saved by Your Beloved Canine

Have you ever wished that your dog could talk or, better yet, speak on your behalf? If you answered yes, you’re like the researchers at Georgia Tech’s Animal-Computer Interaction Lab, who developed technology that allows dogs to “tell” other people when their owners need help.

Researchers at the lab created a computerized talking vest that’s shaped like a standard dog harness. Each vest contains a tiny computer and sensors located on the side of the harness that are activated when the dog reaches around to press them. For example, if a dog heard the doorbell ring, he could use his wet nose to press the correct designated sensor on the vest, which would then prompt a human voice on the vest to yell out: “I heard the doorbell ring!” The vest also sends text alerts to an owner’s cellphone, which would be especially helpful to a dog owner who is deaf or hearing impaired.

Somewhat like the concept of doggy doorbells, which allow dogs to press a doorbell to alert their owners when they want to be let in and outside, the lab is developing other technology that lets dogs call 9-1-1 for emergency help by pressing their wet noses to a separate television screen. This could be incredibly useful to elderly people living at home or for those with medical conditions.

Hot Dogs = Praise

Yes, your dog might be happy when dinner time rolls around, but what your dog actually loves just as much as his kibble is you, according to MRI brain imaging studies on dogs done by Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University. Berns was able to show that dogs respond to praise and hot dogs equally, suggesting that dogs love humans not just for the treats we give them.

“Increasingly, we are applying the same techniques used in human neuroscience research—such as machine learning and brain-decoding algorithms—to read out neural fingerprints from dogs.”

—Gregory Berns, neuroscientist, Emory University

Following eight years of training, Berns and his team were able to slide dogs inside an MRI machine without the use of sedation or restraint. They gave the dogs hot dogs some of the time and praise some of the time, and when they examined how the rewards center of a dog’s brain responded to both food and praise on the MRI film, the vast number of dogs responded to both equally.

“Over and over, we have been finding that regions in the dogs’ brains that are the same as those regions in human’s brains respond similarly,” Berns says. “The reward areas of both dogs and humans respond to things like food and praise.” The response to praise, in particular, is especially significant, he notes, because it “suggests that dogs have similar emotional responses as we do, but don’t have the language to describe it.”

Twitters, Trills, Chirps, and Peeps: A Dictionary

Birds chirp, dolphins whistle, dogs bark—but what does it all mean? We’ll soon find out with the help of AI, which has been unlocking the deep mysteries of animal languages, providing insight into what animals are trying to say to each other and to us.

From the new software being used to decode conversations between small monkeys called marmosets to another AI project from a Swedish startup monitoring bottlenose dolphins in a wildlife park, humans are one step closer to learning what animals are thinking by using AI analysis to decode sounds and compile a dictionary of animal languages.

To listen in on marmosets’ conversations, for example, Samvaran Sharma, an engineer at the McGovern Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed AI software with colleagues in Robert Desimone‘s laboratory at MIT that can identify what sounds the monkeys are making (trills, chirps and peeps known as “calls”). Once the sound is identified, the sounds are translated into black and white images, then sent to an algorithm designed to find patterns in the sounds.

The algorithm is able to pick up what the monkeys are saying to each other by using a slew of examples to determine which characteristics define each trill, chirp, or peep. Once the researchers have a string of words, then they can piece together what the monkeys are saying to one another.

Technology Cultivates Empathy

While these technologies are opening a window into what animals are thinking and feeling, they are also making the world a better place for animals and humans, alike.

Some organizations have been using technology to help humans—children, especially—develop deeper empathy toward animals. Robo Wunderkind, a Vienna-based robotics company that makes STEM robotics kits in the shape of blocks, and the Scottish SPCA, an animal welfare charity, have teamed up to host workshops for children that are designed to cultivate empathy toward animals. Through hands-on learning, SPCA educators help children draw comparisons between the robots they’ve made and real animals in order to help build positive human-animal relationships.

In addition, Berns’ MRI studies trained 50 dogs to become service-dogs using machine learning approaches to identify neural patterns that would predict which dogs would be best for the job.

“Increasingly, we are applying the same techniques used in human neuroscience research—such as machine learning and brain-decoding algorithms—to read out neural fingerprints from dogs,” Berns says.

So while man’s best friend can’t speak human (not yet, at least), we can expect technology and AI to continue bringing us closer and closer to our beloved canines. Says Berns, “Many people treat them as family members.”