Is your dog computer literate?

Dougie with keyboard and laptop.
Dougie gets online. Image by author. CC BY 3.0

Last month, our two-cat household was turned upside down by the arrival of a new puppy, Dougie. What with house-training, new routines, and setting boundaries for dog and cats, this was a confusing time for all of us. What I wanted more than anything was to know what our animals were thinking. Does young Dougie understand the rules? Is he tired? In need of a run? And what do the cats make of this new creature in their home?

After reading about research at the Open University in the UK, I’m hoping that in the future digital technology could make it easier for us to communicate and work alongside our animals. Dr Clara Mancini and the team there are considering how we can apply knowledge about the design of computers (often called Human Computer Interaction) to technology for animals to use. A new field of scientific investigation is born: Animal Computer Interaction.

One bark for OK, two for Cancel

Already, there is no shortage of dogs who blog or cats who tweet. Though I do wonder if they get some help from their human companions.

But as digital technology permeates our home and social lives, it’s possible this could help us better understand our pets and communicate more effectively with them. Using a pet cam to monitor what the animals get up to while you’re out could help you understand your pet’s preferences, or allow you to give them guidance or reassurance in your absence.

Just as dogs can learn to ring a bell to tell us they want to go outside, it might be that they could learn to operate specially designed computers to communicate more complex needs and interests. Dr Mancini and her team are interested in how they might design animal-appropriate interfaces using touchscreen technology, gesture-based controllers or nose-sized buttons.

Researchers in Norway are taking a rather different approach. Adapting existing headsets which can read human brain-waves, they are hoping to develop a headset to translate a dog’s thoughts into human language. Putting aside the confronting appearance of the prototype unit, this raises ethical concerns for any pet owner. Do I have the right to read my dog’s private thoughts? Does it matter that he hasn’t chosen to use this technology, and doesn’t understand its purpose?

How the hell does Facebook know I'm a dog?
Is your dog on Facebook? Image credit: Rob Cottingham. CC BY-NC 3.0

What does Fido think?

Questions of ethics, choice and consent are not trivial. Many of us would agree that past generations have underestimated the importance of animal rights in research, and of positive relationships with pets and service animals.

For the team at the Open University ethical considerations are front and centre. One of their first steps has been to issue a manifesto which prioritises the well-being of the individuals, animal and human, who take part in their research.

When it comes to technology design, it’s well recognised that future users should play an active role in communicating their needs and preferences, and evaluating prototype products. Techniques such as participatory design are found to be successful with humans of all ages, but these rely heavily on verbal communication.

“Our challenge is to see the world from the animal’s point of view and how we could involve them in the design process, so we can develop technology that actually works for them” says Dr. Mancini. Working initially with service dogs, Mancini’s team is starting to develop methods which could help a dog to understand the design process and allow it to take an independent role in designing technology.

I hope they hurry up. I for one can’t wait to use the technology our cats and dogs design for us.

One Response to “Is your dog computer literate?”

  1. Sarah Webber says:

    New Scientist are also taking an interest in animal computer interaction! Check out their article on some of the latest work in this space: