The men who talk at goats
There is no hidden, profound philosophical meaning behind the title of this column – except the allusion to an older Hollywood movie. The fact is, AI can help humans understand animals. But what would a world look like in which we could suddenly talk to animals? This satirical treatise provides answers.
by Strigalt von Entf*
Do you have a pet? If so, highly respected friends of multispecies cohabitation, would you sometimes like to know what your furry roommate is thinking? Would you like to listen on the sofa in the evening to your guinea pig's experiences of the day? Are you curious about your budgie's views on the European Central Bank's interest rate policy? What if I told you: Yes, your dream can come true, and soon!
What St Francis of Assisi was enabled to do by the grace of God, you will soon be able to do thanks to science. The prophets in white research coats are currently developing ways to make the sounds of animals intelligible to humans with the help of AI. More than that: even non-verbal signals – from the tail dance of the horned mason bee to the meandering threatening gestures of the whitetip reef shark – are supposed to become an open book.
No, don't tell me, my soundly sceptical friends, I can hear the question clearly even without AI: Why does Homo Sapiens once again take the second step before the first? Why do we go far away in pursuit of the Golden Fleece before we have made our beds at home in Iolkos? The pitch in which pigs grunt can already tell us about the valence and intensity of the animal's emotional experience (see box). At the same time, many people are not in a position to reliably infer something from the tone of their spouse's "No, honey, it's nothing!" Also, very few people are even able to feel the emotional valence of a speech by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. So, shouldn't we first ...?
Analysing the grunts of pigs
What in this column is presented in such a delightfully exaggerated and satirical way actually exists: for example, an AI that recognises the emotional state of pigs based on their sounds.
How exactly this works and what it is hoped to be good for, you can find out in our interview with Elodie Briefer, Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Copenhagen.
But now that Prometheus has once again stolen fire from the gods and is already halfway to handing it over to us, we can – no, we must – ask where the development we have been following will lead us? First, we are threatened with – let's call it "underwhelming" – revelations about the state of mind of zoo animals with which interested sociology students want to discuss the philosophical aspects of the concept of freedom. The supposedly exciting secret life of your cats in search of adventure turns out to be the same litany every evening of the futile hunt for a moth, which your pawed tiger wants to finally catch tomorrow, followed by dull treatises on feline territorial politics.
Really exciting, let's be honest with ourselves, would be if technology also enabled us to communicate in the other direction. Yes, now the true, groundbreaking perspectives are opening up.
The supposedly exciting secret life of your cats in search of adventure turns out to be the same litany of futile hunting for a moth every night.
If your pet wants its daily meal on time, it can now expect to be involved in the household chores as far as possible. While the Bernese mountain dog takes out the rubbish, Roswita the cockatoo fans you with a cooling breeze on hot days. And who better to conjure up fallen things from behind the corner sofa than the lithe house boa.
Even with the unwished-for housemates, living together could improve considerably. House spider Wilma is now only allowed to set up her web on approved building sites, otherwise you'll go get the hoover. How much more relaxed would tropical summer nights become if one could only call out to the nocturnal mosquito: "Here, mistress of the siren-like buzzing sounds, take my blood, goddamn it, but stop making dentist's drilling noises – otherwise you'll make house spider Wilma's acquaintance!"
Communicate naturally and intuitively with digital systems
Thanks to Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Conversational Artificial Intelligence, it is not yet possible to interact with animals, but it is possible to interact with digital systems in a natural and intuitive way – through speech or text and without having to know any tools or programming languages.
What opportunities does this open up for companies? Find out more here!
Even outside of one's own four walls, astonishing merits can be discerned. Instead of Richard David Precht's "untellectual" remarks on the evening talk show, we hear what defence strategies Günter the armadillo would like to suggest to the Ukrainian military. Office dog Bruno can bring unheard-of perspectives to product development with SCRUM. The carrier pigeon makes an unexpected comeback as a quick news service for a few breadcrumbs.
Yes, many things are possible, and it seems as if a two-way communication channel would bring humans, alienated from nature, closer to the originality of creation again.
But oh – yes, you guessed it: we wouldn't be us if we weren't also aware of the dangers. The smorgasbord of effects mentioned would certainly enrich our lives in some places. But if we think further – as you and I habitually do in the spirit of Hecate, goddess of forks in the road – we can guess what fateful turn our existence is about to take.
What turn, you ask? More on that in the second part of this column.
Strigalt von Entf
*Our "Feuill-IT-on" format is created in collaboration with the two freelance writers Tobias Lauterbach und Daniel Al-Kabbani who occasionally contribute to the satire platform "Der Postillon". Under the pseudonyms Strigalt von Entf, and Tabea Ulla Thor they report on current events from the world of technology – always with a wink! ;-)