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Talking to dogs isn’t so far-fetched: Researchers translate canine with computer science

December 9, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
Researchers at North Carolina State University are inventing technology to decode dog talk. Hari Sreenivasan visits a computer science lab that has designed a harness to monitor physiological and emotional changes and send wireless commands through vibrations, which could be used with guide animals or search and rescue dogs.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Dog lovers will want to pay close attention to our next story.

Researchers in North Carolina are working on ways to listen to and speak with man’s best friend.

Hari Sreenivasan reports, the idea of talking dogs isn’t so farfetched.

MAN: Here we go, bud. Ready?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Man’s best friend is getting a digital nudge.

MAN: Stick his head through there.

MAN: OK.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David Roberts, a computer science professor, and his team at North Carolina State University are inventing new ways to talk and listen to dogs, like Robert’s Labrador retriever, Diesel.

DAVID ROBERTS, North Carolina State University: We’re developing the technologies that are going to help us what we like to say decode, or interpret, what our dogs are saying or communicating to us, as well as help us communicate back to our dogs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This prototype harness allows researchers to send wireless commands to dogs in the form of vibrations, while multiple sensors on the device send information from the dog back to researchers.

DAVID ROBERTS: The mission that I have in connecting technologies in dogs and humans is to help improve that vocabulary.

ALPER BOZKURT, North Carolina State University: The wireless transmission is using the Wi-Fi, the wireless Internet.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A dog of the future won’t wear anything so clunky, if collaborator Alper Bozkurt has anything to do with it. He’s with the university’s Computer Science Department of Electrical Engineering. He hopes to shrink all the sensors down into a collar. Bozkurt says his inspiration came from the movie “Up.”

ACTOR: Speak.

ACTOR: Hi there.

ACTOR: Did that dog just say hi there?

ACTOR: Oh, yes. My name is Doug. I have just met you, and I love you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While the researchers don’t make any claims to develop actual voices for dogs, they do believe that multiple sensors which monitor canine physiology, like changes in heart and respiratory rates, can help their human companions hear and understand what a dog is feeling.

ALPER BOZKURT: We try to understand emotion of the dog and…

HARI SREENIVASAN: The emotion of the dog?

ALPER BOZKURT: Emotion of the dog. When we get excited, our heart rate goes higher, and we start to breathe faster, and sometimes it also affects our body temperature, and our voice changes. So we have physiological sensors, or health sensors, and those send information about the sympathetic system, or the health of the dog.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So you can tell when — so you can tell when the dog is stressed.

ALPER BOZKURT: Exactly, dog is stressed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Or when it’s excited.

ALPER BOZKURT: Or when it’s excited, yes, exactly.

DAVID ROBERTS: It enables us to identify things like stress and anxiety, and differentiate those things from excitement, happiness, relaxation.

People often misinterpret these things with dogs, and by being able to monitor these things that are not necessarily obvious, we can fuse those data together and provide information to handlers in real time, maybe through a cell phone, or a tablet app, or sending them a text message, just a subtle way to alert them to things that are going on with their dogs.

SEAN MEALIN: Simba, go forward and left, find your way, go on through.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For Sean Mealin, the ability to both talk to and understand his guide dog Simba is crucial.

SEAN MEALIN: Find the stairs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A graduate student in the university’s Computer Science Department, Mealin lost his eyesight early in life.

SEAN MEALIN: Simba, let’s go upstairs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Guide dogs are trained to stay calm in all situations. And without the ability to see Simba’s body language, Mealin says it can be hard to recognize his dog’s emotional state.

SEAN MEALIN: Good boy.

Guide dogs have an incredibly tough job. They are trained not to show stress. So, if they’re feeling hot, or if they’re feeling cold, or if they’re distressed either emotionally or actually in physical pain, a lot of the time, they won’t show that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What is it that someone with a guide dog would do on a daily basis that would be assisted by computers?

SEAN MEALIN: I envision having some kind of mechanism in the handle that maybe vibrates when he’s feeling upset about something. So maybe we’re walking down the street, and there’s a dog loose two blocks ahead of us, and Simba sees this, but he has no way of saying that to me. Right?

So by feeling that — by getting a representation that he’s stressed out about something up ahead, I can actually go ahead and decide before we get there to find another path around. So I might not be actually aware of what was stressing him out, but I can still take that action to move us away from that area.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the most interesting applications for smart harnesses may be with search-and-rescue dogs, whose job is to go into dangerous spaces that humans cannot reach, like the aftermath of the World Trade Centers bombing, or the earthquake in Haiti, disaster sites where dogs played a prominent role in recovery.

Tiny cameras, microphones, gas and heat sensors could relay vital information to first-responders who may be out of sight.

Roberts has been consulting with North Carolina search-and-rescue volunteer Tracey Collins.

WOMAN: The next generation of search dogs could be very techno-savvy dogs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Search-and-rescue handlers could communicate with their dogs too.

DAVID ROBERTS: So, the vibration motor is here, here, back here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Vibrations are controlled by a tablet or smartphone.

So these correspond to the vibration motors that are in the harness?

DAVID ROBERTS: Exactly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Press this button and the dog feels the vibration?

DAVID ROBERTS: Yes. It’s a gentle — it’s nonaversive. It’s not painful. It’s not a punishment. It’s purely a signal to the dog.

HARI SREENIVASAN: To demonstrate, two treats are placed in front of Diesel, one to his left and one to his right.

DAVID ROBERTS: What we’re going to do is, we’re going to have Diesel sit in front of you.

Sit. Good. Very good.

HARI SREENIVASAN: By pressing a button on the wireless device, vibrations tell Diesel which treat he can choose.

DAVID ROBERTS: Give it about a second. OK. Here we go. Press right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

Good. Very good.

Roberts says such commands can get dogs to critical areas faster, and get them out safely.

DAVID ROBERTS: I’m going to press left.

Good job.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Roberts and his team plan to advance their canine computer technology in the next two years with a recently awarded grant from the National Science Foundation.

Hari Sreenivasan, “PBS NewsHour,” in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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