Scientists Channel Dr. Dolittle By Enabling Animals To ‘Speak’ To Humans

Imagine if your dog or cat could speak. Ever wonder what they would say? I have a pretty good idea of what my dog, Lady Morgan, is trying to communicate on occasion, which is usually "Intruder! Intruder! Let me out, I'll rip the UPS man to shreds!" or "Intruder! Intruder! Let me out, I'll rip that squirrel to shreds!" I don't need any fancy pants technology to translate the crazed ramblings of my dog whenever someone (or some animal) dares to come within 100 feet of my home, but there are legitimate reasons to give animals the power of speech. Researchers are on it.

One of them is Melody Jackson, a computer scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology. She's the creator and director of BrainLab, whose mission is to research innovative human-computer interaction for people with severe disabilities. Her most recent project involves outfitting service dogs with computerized vests that make it possible to communicate with humans.

Lady Morgan Paper
"You won't believe what the cat did while you were gone."

These service dogs are trained to pull on a mechanical lever to initiate a pre-recorded audio message. It might say, "My handler needs you to come with me!"

It's not a parlor trick, but a potential life saving mechanism. One example is a diabetic that goes into shock. There are service dogs trained to detect and alert diabetics when their blood sugar is falling, but going into shock, or "hypoglycemia unawareness," can happen quickly. At that point, there's not a whole lot the dog can do because it can't talk.

That's where these vests come into play, and the above is just one example of how giving them speech can be useful, even life saving. And it doesn't stop with speech. Through computerized vests, a service dog can be trained to issue an SOS alert with GPS coordinates.

The field here is wide open. Beyond service dogs, researchers are finding ways to help humans and dolphins communicate and they're building video games that cats and humans can play together. In addition to the aforementioned vests, Jackson is working on sensors that monitor horses and can send alerts to owners of impending lameness.

Cool stuff.