January 16, 2014

Breaking translation news: Scandinavians invent animal-to-human-language translator



The Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery, a Scandinavian design firm/ad agency/creativity lab, is working on a new product that will revolutionize the one area of translation that even Google hasn’t dreamed of cracking, the last frontier, the El Dorado of all pith-helmeted multilingual explorers: figuring out what your dog is saying.

The invention, No More Woof, is a headset with sensors that track electrical signals in a dog’s brain. For instance, certain patterns of signals have been identified as indicating familiar emotions like tiredness, hunger, curiosity, and excitement. The the No More Woof headset uses Electroencephalogram (EEG) readings which are then analyzed by a micro computer, and converted into human speech via loudspeaker.

And it won’t be just one eerie Siri-voice for all: the NSID researchers are developing multiple voices so that you’ll be able to choose between dogs with different accents, pitches, and vocabularies. Pudge, for instance, says “I’m so very weary” in a voice that suggests Scandinavian weltschmerz, whereas Abby, an apparently overstimulated Chihuahua, chimes in with “He must be a very nice animal.”

The standard No More Woof headset is only able to process basic thoughts and emotions, but the NSID team is also envisioning more advanced versions, such as the “NMW Superior,” with features like a “fully customizable color appearance” to blend in with your dog’s fur, a mini-speaker imbedded in a golden dogtag, and the ability to learn over time, allowing for increasingly complex sentences.

Obviously, the exciting part about this is the unexpected stuff, because all dog owners have what feels like a pretty reliable sense of what their dogs are thinking, based on non-verbal signals, like intense staring, tail-wagging, arm-chewing, and that sigh they sometimes make when they’ve circled for a bit and then sit down.

If No More Woof taps into the unexplored depths of canine psychology, what might it find there? Lewdness, for one: NSID suggests that there could be an uncensored edition of the NMW… which one expects would be particularly embarrassing for owners at dog parks. If Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog is any guide, I think we can also expect an ambiguous attitude — part adoration, part class hatred — towards humans, along with a bad taste in ties and a tendency to go on benders.

But no translation relationship is complete if it isn’t mutual: the NSID researchers aim eventually to make two-way communication possible, imagining a day when humans can express themselves “in dog, or other animal tongue like, oh sweet thought, a dolphin!” (In the video they made to promote the project, the NSID researchers apologize for their own translation skills, with an adorable and totally unnecessary yellow sticker reading “Sorry for our english. We are Scandinavian.”)

In the meantime, I’m just looking forward to more shots of dogs wearing headsets and looking like tiny telemarketers…



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.