EEG technology allows people to play music and control vehicles with their minds. But can it translate a dog’s thoughts into words? (Nordic Society of Invention and Discovery)
A team of oddball inventors claims they are developing a headset that translates a canine’s thoughts into words
By Tuan C. Nguyen
In a way, the intimate relationship between man and man’s best friend is unjustly lopsided. For their part, dogs are able to understand us very well. In fact, researchers believe a border collie named Chaser has demonstrated a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words, along with the ability to comprehend more complex language elements such as grammar and sentences. Meanwhile humans, despite even the most, er, dogged scientific efforts, have yet to decode the literal meaning behind a canine’s bark (if there is any).
But a Swedish design lab that calls itself the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery thinks that animal behaviorists have been going about it the wrong way. What its developers are proposing instead is the development of a device that can infer what an animal is thinking or feeling by analyzing, in real-time, changes in the brain. The concept they’ve imagined, dubbed No More Woof, would be sold as a lightweight headset lined with electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors, which record brain wave activity.
When combined with a low-cost Raspberry Pi microcomputer, the inventors surmise that the electrode-filled device, which rests atop a dog’s head, could match a wide range of signals to distinct thought patterns. A specialized software known as a brain-computer interface (BCI) would then translate the data into phrases to communicate. The phrases, played through a loudspeaker, may range from “I’m tired” to “I’m curious what that is.”
In December, the development team launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.com in hopes of raising enough money to at least further explore the feasibility of such an idea (the BCI, for instance, is just an experiment at the moment). With a $65 donation, supporters of the project had an opportunity to reserve beta versions of the gadget, programmed to distinguish between two to three thought patterns, such as tiredness, hunger and curiosity, and communicate them in English. Those who pledged as much as $600 will receive a higher-end model capable of translating more than four distinct thoughts and suitable for a number of different breeds, which the group concedes has proven to be quite difficult.
“The challenge is to make a device that fits different dogs and measures in the right place,” says Per Cromwell, the product’s creator. “If it gets displaced it can lose the signal. We are struggling with these topics and would rather describe the devices we are working on as as working prototypes rather than mass produced products.”
While developers more than doubled their initial goal—raising $22,664—you may not want to get your credit card out quite yet.
Since the Indiegogo launch, neuroimaging experts have come out to debunk claims made on the product’s website, saying the science doesn’t add up.
“What I saw in their video can’t work,” Bruce Luber, a Duke University professor who specializes in brain stimulation and neurophysiology, tells Popular Science.
Luber points out, for instance, that since EEG is designed to measure neural activity near the surface area of the brain, it won’t be able to determine if an animal (or human) is feeling hungry; that feeling originates in the hypothalamus, which is located deep in the center of the brain. And while devices are being developed to allow users to move prosthetic limbs, steer a car or even play music, reliably identifying specific emotions and thoughts has thus far been beyond the scope of even the most sophisticated technology…