It’s right out of a storybook—as long as we’ve told tales, humanity has imagined the possibility of talking to animals.
We’ve been told FluentPet reminds us of “Dug” the happy-go-lucky pup from Pixar’s Up. The animated film features him speaking via a special collar that translates his thoughts—while this is still a ways off, there’s a chance that Augmentative Interspecies Communication (AIC) devices could help us get a little closer.
What’s the science behind this phenomenon?
In 2008, Brazilian researchers wondered the same thing: could a dog be trained to communicate through an AIC device? The researchers designed a paradigm to examine whether a dog could recognize lexigrams (symbols representing words) to communicate requests (1). After some basic command training, their subject Sofia was taught to press lexigrams on a keyboard corresponding to food, water, walk, potty, toy, crate, or pets. Recordings tracked Sofia’s behavior and gaze, ultimately suggesting her gaze corresponded with intent some 87% of the time (1).
Kanzi the bonobo and her ability to use lexigrams
However, these researchers were not the first to implement an AIC device to achieve interspecies communication. Such study began in the 1970s—scientists were training non-humans such as primates and marine mammals to select learned buttons to request, comment, and participate in cognitive studies. One of the most well-known—and still living—subjects is Kanzi the bonobo, who became proficient in using lexigrams by observing lessons that were initially directed at his mother. Lexigrams, or symbols that correspond with objects and ideas, are typically presented on a keyboard or screen for the primate. Although Kanzi’s mother was largely uninterested in learning lexigrams, Kanzi’s abilities quickly took off. Over time, researchers found Kanzi could identify a correct lexigram after hearing the corresponding word played, and she could even make novel requests (2).
The “Clever Hans Effect”
Claims about Kanzi’s abilities received mixed reviews, and many disagreed with the researchers’ conclusions. Some claimed Kanzi’s abilities were nothing more than a combination of simple associations and the “Clever Hans Effect.” Named after a horse (“Hans”), this effect came to light during a 1907 investigation of Hans’ apparent “cleverness.” It was said Clever Hans could perform arithmetic and other intelligent tasks by communicating through tapping his hooves (3). However, it was later discovered that the horse was merely well-attuned to his audience. The researchers found that as Hans’ tapping proceeded, the audience held their breath in anticipation, breathing a collective sigh of relief the moment Hans reached the target number, unintentionally signaling to him that he had the correct answer. Today, much has changed in our understanding of how to perform systematic research on animal behavior—cameras and automated data capture tools allow for more precise conclusions, and we now know how to implement strategies that avoid unintentional human cueing.
What we’re doing today at HowTheyCanTalk to learn more
At the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab, is currently leading a study involving thousands of HowTheyCanTalk participants. Though there are multiple phases to the study, at the moment, the focus is on collecting participant-submitted data—later phases will include 24/7 recordings and trials to better determine the correlation between a button press and contextual behavior. Despite the criticisms inherent in the study of interspecies communication, as seen with Clever Hans and Kanzi the bonobo, the possibilities still hold exciting promise. Because the HowTheyCanTalk study is far more wide-scale and expansive than what’s been previously done, we hope the conclusions drawn can be evaluated on a statistically-rigorous level as well. As we collect more data—from animal temperaments and genetics to daily habits and recorded behavior—we hope to understand what really drives their use of buttons, and whether or not it is meaningfully significant. Equipped with the knowledge of criticisms of past projects, we remain optimistic with our thousands of participants in the HTCT research initiative, we can make steps forward in the quest of interspecies communication.
While it remains uncertain whether our dogs are really "speaking," we do know that our work continues to build deeper and unbreakable bonds. Not only is it an engaging way to spend time together, but it can also help to develop closer relationships with our beloved learners. If your learner is perfectly expressing to you what they want with their buttons, if they’re sharing love and affection in more ways than one—that bond is something all of us can cherish the same.
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1. Rossi, A. P. & Ades, C. (2008). A dog at the keyboard: Using arbitrary signs to communicate requests. Animal Cognition, 11, 329-338.
2. Savage-Rumbaugh, S. & Lewin, R. (1994). Kanzi: The ape at the brink of the human mind. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-58591-6
3. Samhita, L., & Gross, H. J. (2013). The "Clever Hans Phenomenon" revisited. Communicative & integrative biology, 6(6), e27122. https://doi.org/10.4161/cib.27122.