September 28, 2022

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Did my cat just hit me?  An adventure in translating pets

Did my cat just hit me? An adventure in translating pets

My cat is a well-meaning gossip. Momo will meow when she’s hungry and when she’s full, when she wants to be picked up, when she wants to get off, when I leave the room or when I enter her, or sometimes for what seems like no real reason at all.

But because she is a cat, she is also uncooperative. Until the moment I downloaded it MeowTalk Cat Translator, a mobile app that promised to turn Momo’s meow into plain English, immediately screamed. For two days I tried and failed to request a voice.

On the third day, out of desperation, I decided to hold her while she was having dinner, an interruption guaranteed to elicit a howl of protest. Right on cue, Momo shouted. The app processed the audio, then played an ad for Sara Lee, then provided subtitles: “I’m happy!”

I was suspicious. But MeowTalk made a more reasonable translation about a week later, when I returned from a four-day trip. Seeing me, Momo bowed and then purred. Translation of the application “Nice to see you”. Then: “Let me rest.” (The ads disappeared after I upgraded to a Premium account.)

The desire to talk to animals is ancient, and long predates when smartphones became our best friends. Scientists taught great apes sign language, chatted with gray parrots, and even tried to teach English to glass-nosed dolphins. Pets – with whom we share homes but not a common language – are particularly tempting targets. My TikTok feed is filled with bunny videosa sheep a sheep that has learned to press volume buttons that play pre-recorded phrases such as “out”, “scratch” and “I love you”.

MeowTalk is the product of a growing interest in recruiting additional intelligence – machine learning algorithms – to decode animal communications. The idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem. For example, machine learning systems, which are able to extract patterns from large data sets, can distinguish between the squeaks that rodents make when they are happy and those they make when they are in distress.

Applying the same progress to our fellow creatures has obvious appeal.

“We try to understand what cats are saying and give them a voice,” said Javier Sanchez, founder of MeowTalk. “We want to use this to help people build better and stronger relationships with their cats,” he added.

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For me, an animal lover in a household of three — Momo, the cranky cat reluctantly sharing space with a tired dog Watson — the idea of ​​a pet translation app was baffling. But even the creators of MeowTalk admit that there are still some kinks to work around.

Meow contains multitudes. At a cat’s best time – for example, when a cat is being fed – the meows tend to be short, high-pitched and have high pitches, According to a recent study, which has not yet been published in a scientific journal. But at the worst of times (trapped in a cat carrier), cats generally demonstrate their distress with long, low-pitched meows with droopy meows.

said Susan Schutz, a speech pathologist at Lund University in Sweden, who led the study as part of a research project called Music.

and in Study 2019Stavros Ntalampiras, a computer scientist at the University of Milan, explained that algorithms can automatically distinguish between meows made by cats in three situations: when they are brushing, while waiting for food or after they are left alone in an alien environment.

MeowTalk, whose founders Dr. Ntalampiras after the study came out, expands on this research, using algorithms to identify cat sounds made in diverse contexts.

The app detects and analyzes cat sayings in real time, assigning each to a broadly defined “intent,” such as happiness, comfort, hunting or a “mating call.” He then offers a simple conversational and English “translation” of any intent he detects, such as “Let me rest” trapped from Momo. (Oddly enough, none of these translations seem to include “I will chew your leg if you don’t feed me this moment.”)

In 2021, MeowTalk researchers reported The program can distinguish between nine targets with an accuracy of 90 percent in general. But the app was better at identifying some than others, and it’s not uncommon to confuse “happiness” with “pain,” according to the findings.

Assessing the accuracy of a cat translation app is challenging, said Sergey Driesin, founder of MeowTalk. “You should really know what your cat wants,” he said.

I found the app, as advertised, to be particularly good at detecting purring. (Then again, I am) But it’s hard to say what the calls in each category mean – if they hold a consistent meaning at all – without having an actual way of communicating with the cats. (Catch 22?)

After all, the exact purpose of purring, which cats do in a variety of situations, remains elusive. However, MeowTalk interprets the purring as “comfort.”

“But to be frank, that could mean…” said Mr. Sanchez, paraphrasing him. “We don’t know what that means.”

At times, I’ve found MeowTalk’s bag of conversational translations to be disconcerting. In an instant, Momo looked like a university acquaintance was replying to a scrambled text message: “Just chilling!” And in another movie, she became a Victorian heroine: “Baby, I’m here!” (This prompted my fiancé to start addressing the cat as “my love,” which was also worrisome.) One afternoon I lifted Momo off the ground, and when she dies, she glances at my phone: “Hey baby, let’s go somewhere special! “

“A lot of translations are presented in a creative way to the user,” said Dr. Netalamberas. “It’s not pure science at this point.”

Dr. Schutz said that over the years she has seen many cat translation products, but has yet to find one that really impressed her. “I’m looking forward to seeing something that really works, because that would be great,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sanchez said he’s also heard from users who have discovered an unexpected use of the app, which stores recordings of meowing he captures: listening to these recordings after their animal has died. He said it was a “very magical experience”.

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Dogs can have their own day soon. Zulingwaa startup based in Arizona, hopes to create an AI-powered dog translator to analyze dog voices and body language.

Con Slobodchikov, founder and CEO of Zoolingua, who has spent most of his academic life, said dog owners were very excited about the concept. Prairie dog communication study. “Good communication between you and your dog means a great relationship with your dog,” he said. “And a lot of people want a great relationship with their dogs.”

(But not everyone, he added, “There is a small minority who say, ‘I don’t think I really want to know what my dog ​​is trying to communicate to me because maybe my dog ​​doesn’t like me.'”)

Still, even complex algorithms can miss important real-world context and cues, said Alexandra Horowitz, an expert on dog perception at Barnard College. For example, a lot of dog behavior is driven by smell. “How will that translate, we don’t know how much?” Dr. Horowitz said in an email.

However, the desire to understand what the animals are “saying” does not seem likely to subside. The world can be a lonely place, especially in the past few years. Finding new ways to communicate with other creatures and species can be a much-needed balm.

Personally, I would pay at least two figures for an app that can help me know if my dog ​​really needs it outside or just wants to know if the neighbor has laid bread for the birds. (Maybe what I really need is an app to detect dog lies.) For now, I will simply have to use my judgment and powers of observation.

After all, our pets are already communicating with us all the time, noted Dr. Horowitz. “It is interesting for me to learn my dog’s connections,” she said, “particularly the idiosyncrasies that form between certain people and certain animals, rather than pretending that an app can—presto!—translate everything.”