Dogs that can communicate via their leads could be just one part of the mooted future for our pets, as the convergence of animals and technology bounds ahead.
At North Carolina State University, scientists have been working on a smart harness for dogs to improve human-animal communication.
“We have computing devices and sensors we put on the dog, which monitor what the dog is doing,” says David Roberts, an associate professor of computer science and machine learning at the university.
“Using wireless communications we are able to send that information to a computer, [then] algorithms interpret the data and perform the role of translation.”
Currently, the harness can detect stress and anxiety, but Dr Roberts is confident it will soon be able to understand a dog’s mood, and whether the animal is tired or not feeling well.
“The technology opens a window. Future possibilities are virtually limitless,” he says.
“I liken what we are doing to the design of a keyboard, mouse and screen for a computer.
“We’re trying to build the equivalent of these devices for dogs so that they can interact with computers in a way that enables them to communicate more effectively with humans.”
While the technology is still years away from being fully realised, it’s hoped such a harness will ultimately help to train dogs.
The benefit of this, argues Dr Roberts, is that computers are simply better at the job than we are.
“The time delay between when [dogs] perform a behaviour and when the consequence or reinforcement occurs is very predictive of how quickly the animal learns,” he says.
“Computers are very fast, have infinite patience and can be made to pay great attention, so they can be extremely consistent in what they reinforce.”
While Dr Roberts is passively monitoring dogs for their natural communication abilities, a research group at Georgia Tech has been equipping dogs with active sensors that a dog can bite, nudge or tug in order to activate a signal or screen message.
Imagine, for instance, a woman in a wheelchair getting stuck in a park. To get help, she sends her dog to a group of people nearby.
The dog tugs its harness and a message sounds: “My owner needs help — please follow me.”
According to researchers, the longest training time a dog needed so far to learn the basic operation of the harness was around 30 minutes.
The internet of animals
Even with the best digital technology, we will never be able to really “speak” to animals using our language. But our relationship with animals, and understanding of them, is already moving to a higher level.
Advanced tracking technology is providing data about the movement and behaviour of animals on an unprecedented scale.
Researchers and enthusiasts now meticulously follow the second-by-second movements of individual birds, sharks or wolves via live cams or GPS.
German author and journalist Alexander Pschera calls it the “animal internet”.
He says our relationship with animals to date has been alienated and distant, centred on zoos, birdwatching and having pets — but that’s changing.
“We now see the beginning of a new era where people are coming back to nature via the internet, and this closes a gap which we have created on our own in the last 200 years,” he says.
“I believe that this information the animal internet provides, which can be aggregated into stories, is much more authentic and much nearer to nature.
“Because of that, we can bridge the gap of the 20th century and get a closer look at the animals right now.”
Animals driving their own science
Advanced tracking technology not only creates a new relationship with nature — it also provides a huge boost for science.
Guy Anderson, a research manager at the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds in the UK, says he’s continually surprised by the data he’s now gaining about the endurance of birds during long distance flight and their patterns of migration.
“The benefits of the information coming back from the tags we use are huge. Knowing where birds are can help us identify key sites for conservation,” he says.
“We’ve been able to work out in fine details some of the key feeding areas offshore for some of our seabird species.
“That allows us to predict what might happen in the future under things like climate change scenarios.”
Besides simple location, micro-tags can now also measure altitude, water depth, temperature and even physiological variables like heart-rate or the intensity with which a bird flaps its wings.
That devices are getting smaller and smaller is of no small consequence.
“We are now able to fit tags to birds as light as 10 to 15 grams, so we will see an expansion of application of these tags to a wider range of species, quite probably to insects,” he says.
“The other main development will be a continuation of adding new data-gathering sensors, and that might extend to being able to record video.”
New sensors can not only monitor the animals themselves, but also better map our environment.
For several years now, Clive McMahon, the animal tracking operations manager for the Integrated Marine Observing Service, has been tagging elephant seals in the Southern Ocean and using the data they provide to measure water temperature and salinity in the Antarctic.
Such methods allow for environmental monitoring to a depth of up to 2,000 meters, providing data crucial for climate research.
“The Antarctic is quite a hostile place,” Dr McMahon says.
“This is where the seals come into play, because they are living in the Antarctic, which means that all year they are collecting information from a really unique part of the ocean that we can’t collect any other way.”