The Tech Helping Dogs Learn to ‘Talk’ With Humans
Imagine you’re enjoying a pleasant stroll through the park when you hear someone say, “My owner needs your attention! Please follow me!” You look around and see no one; then you look down and see a dog staring up at you. You think someone’s pulling a fast one. But then the dog reaches around and his mouth tugs something on the yellow vest he’s wearing, and you hear it again.
“My owner needs your attention! Please follow me!” the dog seems to say again, looking at you plaintively and now beckoning with body language for you to follow him. You do, and he leads you to someone who’s having a severe allergic reaction, a seizure, or some other medical emergency.
Welcome to the new world of dog-human communication, where technology is allowing dogs to “speak” in ways we can easily understand when it really counts. If that same dog had run up to you Lassie-style and tried to get your attention without the voice, you might not have followed him. You might have reached down to pet him or thrown a pinecone for him while his person suffered alone nearby.
The vest is one of several emerging technologies a few universities are developing that could forever change the way working dogs (and probably pet dogs, down the road) can communicate with people—and the way people can communicate with dogs.
I wanted to see how these devices work, so I flew to Atlanta to visit the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), the epicenter of this field in the United States. One of the first researchers I met was Sky, a supersmart border collie who happens to be the dog of Melody Jackson, director of the school’s Animal-Computer Interaction Lab and also director of the FIDO project.* FIDO focuses on creating wearable technologies as well as other ways to open the lines of communication between dogs and humans. Sky is the star tester and demonstrator of the devices produced by Jackson and her team.
When Jackson and Sky greeted me in the lobby of the university’s genius-filled Technology Square Research Building, Sky inspected me with his intelligent border collie eyes and gave me a few sniffs. If he could talk (beyond the talking vest, that is), he might have said something like this:
Barely remembers long division. Why is she here? Does not compute! Don’t let her upstairs!
But he couldn’t. So we went up to Jackson’s office. Sky was wearing a bright yellow Georgia Tech vest and a matching Georgia Tech collar. He had the school spirit, but this was not the vest I’d come to see. When we got to Jackson’s office, she rustled up a couple of prototypes of the talking vest.
“Working dogs are smart, and they have important information they need to tell their handlers or someone else. But they’re limited in what they can do,” she said, handing me a small yellow vest with the words “FIDO research team” on the side. “This is just the beginning of helping them communicate.”
She explained that when the vest is ready for use in the real world, the electronics will all be covered and disguised. But for now, as it gets tweaked and improved, the guts are exposed. The talking vest, in this bare-bones prototype, would get a dog stopped at any security checkpoint. On the top of the vest is a plastic-and-metal controller box about the size of a deck of cards. Out of this stream red and black wires and a couple of white conductor ribbon cables. Some of the wires end in a hard plastic tube that protrudes from the side of the vest.
Jackson asked me to touch the blue surface of the tube. If I were a dog, I’d just tap it with my nose. I expected to hear the slightly robotic female voice I’d heard on a video of Sky using one of the vests.
“My owner needs your attention!” a man’s voice announced with a slight Southern twinge. “Please follow me!”
“A man? A Southern man?” I asked, laughing in surprise. Jackson explained that during testing, users said they wanted their dog’s voice to match their dog’s gender. So they got one of the department’s male researchers to be the voice of Sky’s technology.
More important than the voice is the message. Jackson told me that in real life, the dog would be trained to “say” the emergency message twice.
“In our tests, usually the first time people hear it they jump back or just don’t believe what they’ve heard,” she said.
At this point the talking vest is a one-trick pony. But future vests will likely incorporate a few tabs and pulleys for dogs to “say” whatever information is most important for his or her job.
A seizure-alert dog could tell her person to find a safe place before a seizure by pulling on one tab. She could summon help if necessary by nosing another. This would be especially handy in busy public settings when the dog’s normal alert signal might not be as obvious to the handler and where there’s no life-alert button as there might be at home.
The messages could be customized depending on the disability. Diabetic-alert dogs who detect both low and high blood sugar might have an easier job of communicating if they can “say” their person is going high or low.
The technology could even apply to military working dogs and police dogs. After alerting to an explosive, Jackson said, the dog could communicate if it’s a particularly unstable type, like triacetone triperoxide (TATP), or something more stable, like C-4.
At the time of my visit there were no real-world applications of the technology in place, but that was about to change. The team was working on a vest for a service dog organization that wanted to try it for children with autism. A dog would be trained to use it to supplement a few tasks in his normal repertoire. If the dog sensed an impending meltdown, he could nuzzle into the child and use his usual body language to try to calm him or her. But with the talking vest, he could also gently ask the child directly, “Could you please pet me now?” or some such phrase. The vest will be a full-size service dog vest with the best sensors the team has developed.
The FIDO team has spent a few years creating the kinds of sensors that would stand up to dog mouths and a variety of environments, including water. Another prototype on Jackson’s desk is more friendly looking, with a simple tug toy attached to it. A paper describing the research on the tug-toy sensor in the Journal on Technology & Persons with Disabilities delves into the technical details of the model, then describes the tug-toy sensor as being equipped with a gloriously nontechnical-sounding Kong Wubba—a goofy name for a product sold by the Kong pet toy company. On the next page the paper gets technical again, with a description of voltage-divider schematics.
Other sensors developed by FIDO include one a dog has to gently bite to set off a voice, and another a dog just has to pass his nose next to, as we do with our hands under touchless faucets.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a way to go,” Jackson said as she recounted some of the frustrating and amusing issues they’ve faced.
There have been crunched sensors and drowned sensors. The proximity sensor was sometimes triggered by random objects the dogs would pass in their environment, or if they scratched an itch. These last two resulted in many false alerts, with dogs inadvertently calling for help as, say, they groomed themselves—the ultimate twenty-first-century version of crying wolf.
I have little doubt this team will succeed in helping working dogs “talk” in a potentially lifesaving manner. But what about pet dogs? What if they could really talk instead of communicating with us the way they currently do with their eyes and body language and their own canine utterances? What if our pet dogs were able to “say” things they couldn’t before?
Isn’t part of the bliss of dogs that they listen to us as if they truly understand? We can tell them anything, and they don’t offer advice or try to fix things or blabber it to someone else. They’re just there, with their unconditional love and understanding.
Several years ago when I was news editor at Dogster.com, a Japanese company came out with a gadget that was purported to interpret barks. It was more of a gimmick than anything, but it started a conversation about whether we would really want our dogs to be able to talk.
Would my dog beg at the dinner table with more than his eyes? (Want! Please! ) Would he suggest I stop using deodorant and toothpaste so I would smell better? (No, don’t do that! Stop! ) Or would he, given the chance, just keep listening, only chiming in for important communications?
Taking this a step further, maybe in the future there will be vests for people who want their dogs to help them reach goals. I’d get the “writer on deadline” vest. Gus could be trained to sense by my body language or my scent that I was getting distracted and about to head to the fridge or checking my social media accounts. He would then pull the Kong Wubba on his vest. “Don’t even think of procrastinating! This book isn’t going to write itself,” it would say. Or an encouraging “You’ve got this!” And there’s always the popular “Sit! Stay!”
There wouldn’t be many phrases because the real estate on a talking vest is limited. There are only so many sensors that can be placed on a vest before it gets uncomfortable or unwieldy. So the FIDO team is working on other ways to expand what dogs can tell us.
The team designed motion-detecting collars, and they’ve trained dogs to “gesture” by moving their heads or bodies in certain ways. Mini electronics in the collar would interpret the gestures and put into words what the dog is trying to get across. It’s like the talking vest, only without a dog having to do anything with her mouth. It just requires a little choreography on the part of the dog.
And then there’s touchscreen technology. At this point the touchscreen the FIDO folks are using is the size of a medium flat-screen TV. The screen in a real-life scenario could be significantly smaller. Depending on its use, it might be only the size of a large tablet if portability is important.
Jackson and Sky showed me how it works. “Help!” Jackson said, undramatically, while looking at Sky. He immediately reached back to pull a sensor on his vest, but this wasn’t the right vest. Realizing he was outfitted in his nontalking vest, he performed his other “help” function without missing a beat.
He ran over to the screen, where the numbers “9-1-1” appeared in white, against three circles colored bright blue, yellow, and green. Sky touched them in sequence, but nothing happened. Jackson explained that his nose hadn’t hit them just right. He tried again, and this time the screen switched to a notification that an alert had been sent.
The 9-1-1 feature of the Georgia Tech touchscreen is partly a trial to see if dogs can work with touchscreens and how touchscreens react to dogs. Slobber was a confounding factor for a while, but they’ve worked out some fixes.
FIDO researchers are investigating ways working dogs might be able to communicate using this technology. They’ve been exploring how dogs react to the colors, shapes, size, and placement of icons. The goal is to see if dogs can be trained to use a touchscreen to communicate information specific to their job.
Jackson says icons could be linked to a text or voice message for easy conveyance of what a dog is trying to communicate. She envisions touchscreen applications being a useful tool for dogs who help the hearing impaired. They could alert their deaf handlers to different sounds by pressing icons that would send them text messages like “doorbell is ringing” or “tornado siren.”
Dogs have already proven to be rapid and enthusiastic learners of touchscreen technology. Researchers in Budapest and Vienna have trained more than 200 pet dogs to nose-touch certain images on a screen. The results are promising, with researchers concluding: “The power of the touchscreen as a training tool is in its flexibility, reliability and controllability, and in its ability to provide novel motivational experiences. The number of cognitive training possibilities are limitless. ”
Other researchers have used touchscreens to determine if dogs can discriminate between emotional expressions in human faces. With continuing research into dogs interacting with screens, it may not be long before your dog is asking (via her pleading eyes or a talking vest) for an iPad of her own.