The article I mentioned the other day concerning a computer program that confirms dogs communicate has drawn attention from Language Log [first here, more here]. The first was more of a rant from Geoff Pullum that left me feeling like he’s just not much of a dog person (or at the very least, has a healthy skepticism of animal communication claims). Actually I think he is more angry with the way the media covers this sort of research, but I should stop now before putting too many uninformed words in his mouth. Mark Liberman goes much more in depth and actually picks apart the paper by Molnar, Kaplan, Roy, Pachet, Pongracz, Doka and Miklosi (the Hungarian scientists mentioned in my previous post).
For anyone interested in machine learning and/or animal communication, I think the Liberman post is worth reading. A few highlights are as follows:
no tests were done to see if the computer was significantly more accurate than humans
computer accuracy overall was 43% while human accuracy was 40%
the article is less about communication than it is about the physiological state used to produce the barks: that is, if a dog is emotionally stimulated, body in a lunging position, his bark will naturally differ from a resting dog
The first two points are important in that the pop science articles reporting the study misrepresented the impact of the research — not very surprising. The third point is more interesting to me, though I have never done anything with animal communication aside from learn about it briefly in a introductory linguistics class. I had heard about gorillas who could communicate with sign language, and assumed the results were provocative but not controversial. It was fascinating to learn that whether gorillas are doing anything more than memorizing a set of signs that lead to rewards is still debated.
I saw a video via StumbleUpon the other day where a chimp and a human are shown a screen with numbers that are flashed quickly then converted to blank squares. The task is to touch the squares in descending order. The chimps can do it amazingly fast and humans screw it up big time. I attribute this to the idea that animals are “present” or “in the moment,” while humans tend to have a lot going on in their heads that distracts them from the real world. The chimp reacts to the present world, and the humans get bungled up by trying to sort the spatial configuration of the screen as they see it. They are slowed down by converting the scene into a mental representation, rather than just seeing what is in front of them. But I’m just theorizing… I hope someone with more experience with cognitive science can enlighten this off-the-cuff opinion.
Returning to Mark Liberman’s comments about the physiological condition of the dog, I have to partially disagree. First of all, I definitely agree that the dog’s physical position allows the proper bark to be made. For Daedalus to produce his beagle howl, his body must be rigid and his head extended upwards. I have tried to move his body to prevent this bark (because it’s loud as hell on a quiet street at 12am) and have managed to distort it. However, it is still clearly recognizable as this particular type of bark. I don’t really see, though, why the territorial instinct of warning other animals away from his territory (wolf heritage) would demand the body rigid, head-back position. I think the bark demands that position in order to be made, much as our mouth must be in different configurations to make different sounds (ignoring trained exceptions like ventriloquism). That’s not to say the “fight” body position and the “fight” bark are not interrelated. After all, a human must be holding a sword and facing massive opposition to yell:
This is SPARTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!