Please Do Not Tell Me What My Pets Are Thinking

Our relationship is working just fine, thank you.

Will Leitch

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Do you want to know what your pets are thinking? I mean, really know what they’re thinking? I do not think you do. I do not think this is information that’s going to help in any way.

In a funny, smart piece for The New York Times, writer Emily Anthes explores a new app called MeowTalk, which promises to use AI technology to translate your cat’s sounds into human language. This sounds a little bit — a lot bit, actually — like a scam put together by enterprising tech moguls to separate lonely people from their money, but, while she’s appropriately skeptical, Anthes notes that there’s a little more to it than that:

In a 2019 study, Stavros Ntalampiras, a computer scientist at the University of Milan, demonstrated that algorithms could automatically distinguish between the meows that cats made in three situations: when they were being brushed, while waiting for food or after being left alone in a strange environment. MeowTalk, whose founders enlisted Dr. Ntalampiras after the study appeared, expands on this research, using algorithms to identify cat vocalizations made in a variety of contexts.

The app detects and analyzes cat utterances in real-time, assigning each one a broadly defined “intent,” such as happy, resting, hunting or “mating call.” It then displays a conversational, plain English “translation” of whatever intent it detects, such as Momo’s beleaguered “Let me rest.”

The app’s developers are aware of its inherent deficiencies, but they’re relying — not unwisely, I’d think — on user data to help further hone its technology, using AI to fill in the gaps. It is not inconceivable that enough user information could be amassed that we’d have a reasonable cat-to-human translator. Dogs — simpler, easier-to-understand animals — would surely be next.

This certainly sounds cute. Pixar definitely made it cute in Up.

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Will Leitch

Author of six books, including “How Lucky” and "The Time Has Come." NYMag/MLB.. Founder, Deadspin. https://williamfleitch.substack.com