A few promising—if somewhat salacious—experiments with apes and dolphins in the 60's didn't amount to much. Recent breakthroughs using machine learning, however, offer us fresh prospects of decoding animal languagesby Cal Flyn / April 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
I adopted a dog a few months ago. Suka is a retired sled dog, an old colleague from my time working at a husky kennels in the north of Finland.
I love dogs but this is the first time I’ve owned one. And it struck me, upon her arrival, how strange it is: to cohabit and coexist so closely with another sentient creature, and yet to have no clear way of communicating.
At the start, it was like having a house guest to stay who spoke no English: a little awkward. She was respectful of our space, tried not to get in the way. Greeted us pleasantly when we met one another in the hallway, but then seemed to run out of steam.
Friends asked if she remembered me, and the truthful answer was: I couldn’t tell. What was clear was that, at a fundamental level, we didn’t understand each other. Worse: that she didn’t understand this was her home now, and that she was to stay here, with us, forever.
It broke my heart, those first few days: her sweet docility, her subdued manner, her excitement on seeing other dogs, which quickly faded when they turned out to be strangers.
One thing that must have reassured her was that I used the same basic commands familiar from her kennels: a mongrel mishmash of orders and words of endearment pieced together from various sources. Some are more useful than others. “Gee” and “haw”—generic commands for “right” and “left” used with working animals—could have limited mileage out on walks. There are scraps of English—“come!”; “sit!”—and some Finnish too: hyvä koira! (good dog!); alas! (down!).
That was, essentially, all the common ground we had. Other than that, we were limited to body language. We watched each other carefully, reserved judgments. I moved slowly, a caricature of unthreatening behaviour. When I opened my hands to her in invitation she would approach, but not come close enough to stroke. She wagged her tail, but just that little bit too slowly to be sincere. Probably, I supposed, out of a willingness to please.
I chattered to her anyway, to put her at ease. “Are you hungry?” I asked her, as I stood at the…