Non-human communication translator

Picture this: It’s 2070 and your dog is quite literally your best friend

“I’m hungry,” says Luna, pawing at her food bowl in the kitchen. The silver bowl clinks against the marble floor as she noses it forward. Her dinner isn’t until another half hour.

“It’s 5:30 right now, we need to wait until it’s 6 p.m.,” I remind Luna. When it comes to food, my friend’s almost two-year-old lemon beagle has always been impatient. We knew that long before we were actually able to talk to her. “Go chew on your bully stick or something. ”

Pouting, Luna lays down on her bed and rests her head on her paws. “Hungry. Hungry. Hungry,” she says.

When Mel first got Luna those talking dog buttons, we were both ecstatic. When pressed, the buttons would play a quick pre-recorded word. Luna learned how to use them quickly, and soon words like “outside,” “treat,” and “play” became staples in her life. She knew that when she needed to pee, she had to press “outside;” when she wanted your attention, she had to press “play.” The buttons were great fun, but you’d need one button for each word, and their cost quickly added up (not to mention the environmental ramifications of all that plastic).

You also had to train your dog to understand each button. It was an expensive and time-consuming process because you had to pre-program them individually. Plus, they’re prone to breaking when your dog paws at them incessantly. Mel had to take the “treat” button away a couple of times on account of how much Luna pawed at it. While those buttons were fantastic in helping us understand Luna’s needs and desires and confirmed truly how treat-driven she is, we still couldn’t actually “talk” to her. I mean, we could, but the conversations were always one-sided.

We’ve known dogs have the maturity level of toddlers and the understanding of a 2-year-old human child since the early 2000s. So, when the research team at Earth Species—a non-profit organization specializing in AI and non-human communication—launched their conversation headphones that allowed humans to talk to animals, it changed all of our lives in 2070. This device essentially enables humans and animals to converse without having to dedicate a significant amount of time to training beforehand.

While the technology that allowed scientists to converse with animals has been around for several years and has become an enormously beneficial tool in conservation efforts for endangered species, it’s the first of its kind on the market for the average consumer. The device comes in several colours: dark grey, silver, rose gold, lilac purple, and ocean blue. You can also buy specially designed collars (small, medium or large) for your fur babies that are designed to fit the miniature speaker translator.

Here’s how the device works: your pet can wear an attachable speaker-translator on their collar that is roughly the size of an Apple AirTag and you have headphones that translate their non-human communication into a language of your preference through their app.

The product sold out overnight: it was an instant success. All pet owners, especially dog parents, raced to grab this newest gadget knowing it would completely transform their relationships with their fur babies. Now, you can converse with your dog, cats, guinea pigs, bunnies, turtles, birds—basically with any animal willing to converse with you.

How great would it be if this product existed today?

It’s not impossible: Research in non-human communication

The idea that animals can communicate with humans isn’t so far-fetched. We’re reaching a stage in our society where artificial intelligence will soon enable humans to understand animal communicative behaviour. Scientists at the Project Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI) are already using machine learning to research animal interactions and decipher communications between species like sperm whales. With all new emerging technologies, significant ethical concerns arise: will access to these technologies become the norm? Is it ethical to expect animals to want to even converse with people?

Some people speculate that placing such an expectation on animals to have to talk to humans is rather exploitative—and haven’t humans exploited nature enough? What about the animals who want to be left alone, undisrupted? Whether it is moral for humans to utilize such technology to their benefit would surely cause an international spectacle of animal rights discussions. It’s also worth noting that not all animals have the cognitive ability to converse with humans about the meaning of life.

However, some people dispute this, citing Bunny, a sheepadoodle who uses a hundred dog buttons to communicate with her human Alexis Devine. Bunny’s famous TikTok account @whataboutbunny has 8.3 million followers. On her account, Devine has recorded Bunny asking existential questions like “What dog is?” and “When no Bunny?” Many view Bunny as a genius, but some people have genuine concerns about her existential thoughts. Devine put Bunny on Fluoxetine to help her generalized anxiety disorder and her existential commentary has since almost stopped completely. While it’s not uncommon for dogs to take antidepressants for their anxiety or depression, it does surprise some people how Bunny can articulate her thoughts about being a dog and the idea of death.

The idea that human interactions are the only ones that matter is what the University of British Columbia professor and author of The Sounds of Life Karen Bakker calls Anthropocene centrism. Professor Bakker argues that Western science “has traditionally privileged sight over hearing” whilst measuring all animal interactions against a human ideal. “We tend to believe that what we cannot observe does not exist and because our sense of hearing is relatively weak compared to other species, there’s a lot of communication in nature that simply passes us by,” says Professor Bakker, referring to sounds generated at frequencies above or below the human hearing range.

Animals also use body language to communicate with us, and these multimodal signals can sometimes be overlooked. Con Slobodchikoff, author of Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals,began his career studying the sophisticated calls of prairie dogs and later used this experience as a behaviour consultant for misbehaving dogs (Parshley, 2023). When dogs try to communicate with us, Slobodchikoff says they often use multimodal signals, such as a bark and accompanying body posture. However, as humans we often become fixated on the bark and miss out on other cues, causing us to misunderstand what our dogs are trying to convey.

What would the future look like if animals could talk?

Perhaps if we can talk to police animals and ask if they genuinely enjoy their work, we can create better systems to support them. This technology would also allow animals to volunteer to be service animals. Other people, like animal activists, would surely welcome such technology because it would offer all animals a voice. Instead of people just choosing some puppies and hoping a few make it to become service dogs, we could have more efficient ways of training them because only a small portion of service dogs in training actually graduate and work in their fields.

This technology could even alleviate the pressure from the shortage of veterinarians as many are burnt out and leaving the field. If our animals could tell us they were hurting, we could help them immediately instead of waiting until things became critical. The veterinary field would also benefit significantly as vets could talk to their patients.

And what about animal mental health? Although the minds of animals work quite differently from humans, animals too can suffer from depression and anxiety. It’s not uncommon for a dog to be prescribed an anti-anxiety pill before a flight, I know Luna certainly has. Some dogs take anti-anxiety medicine regularly. The potential this technology has on animal mental well-being is immense and the impact will only continue to grow as we learn more about animal behaviours. Perhaps meditation activities can even be adapted for animals.

Several years from now, we may even have animal helplines for neglected and abused animals to reach out for help. However, this too presents challenges: will all animals have access to this technology? And if so, it comes back to the dilemma presented earlier: would all animals want to constantly talk to humans? Could talking to humans cause more emotional distress for animals? Would humans be able to “silence” their pets by taking away this technology or choosing when they wanted to talk to them—and wouldn’t this power in and of itself be a form of exploitation? If animals could express their needs and desires, then surely the way we treat them will change. Maybe then we will finally view animals as equal beings worthy of equal respect.

Moreover, how would giving animals a voice shift how we perceive our roles and responsibilities as humans? While this technology would give animals a voice, the technology itself will inherently be biased because it is designed by humans. Like AI being racist, similar concerns arise questioning the reliability of this technology concerning actual animal thoughts and communication. Policies and safeguards would need to be implemented, which could bring its own set of challenges as to who would have the authority to make such decisions. Whether animals have moral responsibility for their actions poses an interesting dilemma: how will society treat animal criminal offences?

Some critics worry that implementing this technology on such a large scale can have unknown social consequences in the future. Talking to your dinner before slaughtering them isn’t exactly something the meat industry is enthusiastic about. With lab-grown meat likely becoming the norm in the future, the meat industry may cease to exist aside from select farmers operating illegal black markets selling “novelty” meat products.

Yet, without the exploitation of domesticated animals like sheep, the question of where they would go remains: who will take care of them, and what about predators? And would we need a sheep’s consent to shear their wool? People are already criticizing the questionable ways that animals in zoos are treated—would zoos even exist in the future? The topic of animals’ ability to consent would undoubtedly lead to a drastic shift in how humans perceive and treat animals on a global scale. On the flip side, animal rights activists might argue that this technology would inevitably discriminate against certain animals within a capitalist society.

Certain animals have a higher cognitive ability than others, so their ability to understand and communicate with humans would also be different. This poses the question of how we determine which animals have the right to use this technology. The concept of being able to talk to animals links to the frameworks of communities and power in Universal Basic Assets (UBA), specifically as animals do not have the same understanding as humans and are therefore more vulnerable to exploitation. If access to this technology were to be considered as a UBA, it would enable all animals to advocate for themselves.

If such technology already existed on the market today, it would immediately impact how animal testing laboratories, service dogs, zoos and aquariums operate. However, 10 or 20 years down the road, we may have eliminated animal testing altogether and have developed better, more efficient technologies to replace service dogs. While we may not necessarily rely on animals as a food source, we could find ourselves relying even more on service animals as we train them for various roles in the future.

Of course, this is an idealistic—and perhaps naïve—approach to the future where humans can communicate with animals. The alternative may mean gatekeeping such technologies to only be used for animals we deem are “pet-worthy” like cats, dogs, and birds while other animals like cows and pigs remain exploited for human consumption. This leads to the dilemma of whether accessibility to this technology should be available—a basic right—for all animals.

Relying on pattern recognition in non-human communication, AI algorithms can evolve to become even more accurate over time. Who knows, in a couple of years, we might even be asking our cats what their opinion on catnip is—and if they think we just like seeing them high all the time. As modern recording devices become more sophisticated and able to record enormous amounts of data, scientists can decode the patterns in these sounds by using natural language processing algorithms.

In a future where humans have the technology to understand animal communication, this technology can be weaponized: poachers can use these technologies for precision hunting and advanced bio-acoustic technologies can be used to exploit animals previously not domesticated by humans. Moreover, mammals like dolphins have already been used as spies by the military, and this technology would easily take it to another level, which prompts more questions regarding ethics and the exploitation of animals.

This would open a Pandora’s box of power, control, and animal rights issues. There are numerous implications when it comes to the technology that would result in a society where humans and animals can communicate, but the big question of whether this would imply a better appreciation of animals or another method of exploitation by humans is unknown. I hope, for the sake of all beings, that it’s the former.

Arts & Entertainment Editor (Volume 50); Staff Writer (Volume 49) — Hannah is in her final year double majoring in Communications, Culture, Information and Technology (CCIT) and Professional Writing and Communications (PWC). In her spare time, Hannah runs her sticker shop The Aesthetics Studio and listens to podcasts while drawing. Hannah’s previous publications include PWC’s official journal of creative non-fiction in Mindwaves Vol. 15 and research in Compass Vol. 9 and 10. She also served as an Associate Editor for Compass Vol. 9 and Vol. 10. Hannah was a Staff Writer for The Medium Vol. 49 and 50 before becoming the A&E Editor. You can connect with Hannah on LinkedIn.


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