June 16, 2024


ohOne of my favorite pet behavior theories is this cats see their human owners as fellow cats – just very large, hairless, uncoordinated cats. This is why, or so the lore goes, our pet cats treat us like friendly cats, sometimes licking or rubbing against us.

How do I know this touch? Because at some point in the past few years, I joined the ranks of the pet-obsessed millennials. It creeped me out. One day I was quietly thinking how nice it would be to have a kitten, the next I was staring into glistening jade eyes, feeling the vibrations of a spider through warm fur, and thinking, “Yeah, it looks like ‘ a fair exchange for lifelong servitude.” Now I regularly engage in the OTT pet-parent habits of taking too many photos, boring people with tales of tails, and perhaps the most universal ritual of all: I Google every single thing my pet does to find out why. .

So maybe the news of a science prize offering a whopping $10 million because a breakthrough in animal conversations should be music to pet-obsessed ears. The Coller Dolittle Challenge for Interspecies Two-Way Communication was launched by the Jeremy Coller Foundation and Tel Aviv University. Named after Doctor Dolittle, the famous children’s book character who can talk to animals, the prize suggests researchers use AI to help decode animal language (although other methods could be used).

It aims to build on recent animal language breakthroughs that have seen machine learning translate bat squeaks, pig grunts and rodent sounds. And while the prize doesn’t dictate which species the work should focus on – it could be anything from worms to whales – it’s not hard to imagine which animals the OTT pet owners of the world might be most excited about. Finally, we no longer need to turn to Google to understand cat spit (officially one of Google’s most searched questions), dog whining, why our pooches bury treats or gnats push things off shelves. We can only listen directly to our pets! Maybe one day we can even talk back!

Personally, I’m not so sure I want to talk to my cat. I may enjoy the theories, I may find them insightful or even funny (the idea of ​​humans as big hairless cats is especially pleasing as an antidote to our self-importance), but that they are still only theories is part of the joy. Indeed, the fact that there is still much we do not know about our animal companions is part of their beauty, their mythmaking. I would say, provided we look after them properly, a little mystery is magical. This leaves a space for us to impose our own dreams and thoughts on our band.

‘He’s got a bad boy attitude’: could this be Australia’s grumpiest cat? – video

For example, I believe my cat provides a non-judgmental space for love. Do I really want to hear her meow about “smelling like you had a big night!”, or her disappointment at today’s lucky dip from the pet food multipack: “Tuna again, mom?” There is a long-standing theory that cats know when their owners are calling to them, but just choose to ignore them. Imagine if it was confirmed. Modern life offers enough methods of getting haunted without bringing our pets into it, thank you.

Of course, I understand that the real science prize does something much more valuable: that by better understanding the animal world, we might be able to better care for and protect animals. Although I’d wager that we already have a large body of science telling us how to do exactly that: what we lack is the political will to act on it. I’d like to fantasize about a sci-fi outcome in which humans and animals team up to take down The Man (Hey, we have common interests. Foxes show domestic behavior, to ensure food and possibly human care? The cost of living crisis is coming for us all!). But in reality, it’s unclear how a language breakthrough would do anything to change all that.

It might also be worth remembering one of the most famous animal decoding exercises – not least because it has now been immortalized as an internet meme. It took place in the 70s, with a chimpanzee known as Nim Chimpsky. It recorded the longest sentence of a monkey – a most impressive sentence of 16 words that got everyone in the field very excited. Although perhaps we laymen get carried away with our ideas of what animals are really think, there might have been a touch of disappointment when the sentence was revealed: “Give orange me give eat orange I eat orange give me eat orange give me you.”

Whatever the science prize uncovers will be groundbreaking for animal science. But to move us a step closer to talking to our pets, it may be that some things are better left unsaid.



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