How AI is helping (and possibly harming) our pets | The Washington Post

How AI is helping (and possibly harming) our pets | The Washington Post

Smart collars and robot nannies are some of the innovations bringing pets and their owners closer.

Originally Posted on: The Washington Post

By: Sydney Page

June 7, 2024 at 6:30 a.m.

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While Sandeep Sadhu is busy with work, a companion robot plays fetch with his mini goldendoodle, Simba.

The robot, named ORo, feeds, supervises, trains and entertains Simba — all while studying his behavior and getting to know him better with every interaction.

“He is a great companion for Simba,” said Sadhu, who runs a construction company and is based in Shrewsbury, Mass.

Dog nannies like ORo could soon become a staple among modern pet owners, as artificial intelligence advances at a remarkable rate, revolutionizing various industries — including the pet space. There are now popular AI-powered pet cameras that dispense treats, smart collars with disease-detection capabilities and translators that can allegedly turn a cat’s meow into human language. Americans spent $147 billion on their furry friends in 2023 — up significantly from around $90 billion in 2018, according to the American Pet Products Association. By 2030, the global pet industry is projected to reach nearly $500 billion.

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Mini goldendoodle Simba, a brave early tester of ORo, a dog-nanny robot. (Sandeep Sadhu)

Machine learning — a subset of AI that enables machines to absorb information and improve accuracy — is at the forefront of the latest pet tech innovations. Although many new pet products show promise for improving health, safety and quality of life, AI is fraught with possible dangers. Beyond privacy and ethical concerns, experts caution advanced technologies could splinter the cherished bond between humans and animals.

“It’s going to be interesting to see whether AI complementsour pet ownership or replaces it,” said Lionel Robert, a robotics professor at the University of Michigan. “There’s huge potential. But there’s equally huge risk.”

Shifting to smart accessories

When Melanie Rigden saw a social media post about PetPace — a smart GPS-enabled collar that tracks calories burned, sleep quality, stress level (HRV), temperature, respiration, pulse and other biometrics — she bought one for her mini-Australian labradoodle, Ruby.

“One of the big things that is always top of mind for me is her health and wellness, and just doing everything I can to be proactive about that as she gets older,” said Rigden, 35, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I treat her as my child.”

Asaf Dagan, PetPace’s chief scientist, started the company in 2012 while working as a veterinarian. He saw countless cases of owners bringing in their pets, only to discover that they were riddled with health problems that were past the point of treating.

“It was always frustrating for me to give the owners the bad news,” Dagan said. “Veterinarians and pet owners share this pain point, which is that pets don’t tell us how they feel. If anything, it is the animal instinct to hide symptoms.”

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Since the smart collar measures various metrics that would likely be irregular if a cat or dog were ill, “we can catch the earliest times when these numbers begin to become abnormal,” Dagan explained, noting that the device has a more than 90 percent accuracy rate. It uses machine learning to personalize the collar to each pet.

“We create what we call a ‘biometric profile’ of the pet, and if they deviate from it, this is an indication that what we see today is an early change from being healthy to becoming sick,” he said. The wearable device and its accompanying app aren’t designed to replace the role of a veterinarian, or share data with outside vendors. Rather, the collar is intended to catch signs of illness early, thereby preventing costly emergency room visits and unnecessary in-person appointments.

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Fashion-forward Ruby sporting her PetPace collar, a smart GPS-enabled collar that tracks calories burned, sleep quality, stress level (HRV), temperature, respiration, pulse and other biometrics. (Melanie Rigden)

The same is true for TTcare, a health-care app for pets. Owners can upload pictures of their dog’s or cat’s eyes, skin, teeth and joints and, within one minute, they will receive an AI analysis of their pet’s possible condition. The app — which was created in partnership with veterinary colleges in the United States and South Korea — claims to have a 93 percent accuracy rate.

Once a pet parent snaps a photo, “that image is now being analyzed to understand what type of clinical signs are detected as a benchmark against the 2.5 million images we have in our database,” said Eric Pai, chief business officer at AI for Pet, the creator of TTcare. “The pet parent can now have the summary, and they can also share that with their veterinarian.”

Pet owners have become increasingly vigilant about monitoring their pets — not just their health, but their everyday lives. There’s a smartphone app that analyzes canine poop, alerting pet parents to possible digestive issues, for instance. Robotic surveillance cameras have surged in popularity, particularly since return-to-office mandates began. Petcube has emerged as a popular pet-security-camera company, selling AI cameras with two-way audio, sound and motion alerts, as well as more sophisticated models with a treat dispenser and a laser toy. Upcoming models will be programmed to alert owners to hazards such as fires or broken glass.

“We want to help owners understand their pets better,” said Alex Neskin, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Petcube, which recently introduced a feature called “daily diary,” giving pet owners a play by play of everything their animal did — from jumping on a table to chewing on shoes — while they were out.

“I think AI can spot things that humans cannot,” Neskin said.

Machine learning and instant translation

While smart feeders and collars have become relatively commonplace, more unusual pet technology is emerging: translators.

MeowTalk, an AI-powered cat translator app, has been downloaded more than 22 million times worldwide since its launch in 2020. The AI-powered program is trained through a broad data set of cat vocalizations, which have been labeled by veterinarians. The app analyzes and interprets cat meows, equating the sounds with human language.

“We want to give your cat a voice and strengthen the bond between cats and humans,” said Olivia Cole, MeowTalk’s director of marketing.

Cole used the app with her own cat, Felix. It translated her cat’s meow to mean “I’m in pain,” she said. Shortly after, the cat was diagnosed with cancer and is now in remission.

“It’s mind-blowing,” Cole said. “There are several intents that are universal across cats — I’m hungry, I love you, I’m angry — however, every cat has a different language. We encourage users to train our app to help it understand their cat specifically.”

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Javier Sanchez, founder of MeowTalk, an AI-powered cat translator app, and Mittens. (MeowTalk)

Con Slobodchikoff, an animal behaviorist and conservation biologist, is skeptical of programs like MeowTalk, which rely on insight from humans to designate what the meows mean.

“How accurate are the humans?” Slobodchikoff asked. “That is the problem that I see with human-trained systems.” After spending 30 years decoding the language of prairie dogs, Slobodchikoff — who wrote an upcoming book called “How to Talk to Your Dog” — is now working as the chief scientist on a dog translator called Zoolingua.

Unlike MeowTalk, Slobodchikoff said, Zoolingua’s software does not depend on humans to train it. The animals apparently do the job instead. “What we want to do is take the signals that dogs are producing and then use those signals to train the algorithm,” Slobodchikoff said.

Many dogs are misunderstood, Slobodchikoff said, which can cause behavioral issues that lead people to surrender their pets to overpopulated shelters. Slobodchikoff believes Zoolingua — which should launch within the next two years — can prevent that.

“What we’re trying to do is help people develop a more personal, more loving, more understanding relationship with their dog,” he said. “Ultimately, we would come to respect animals more.”

Robot dogsitters

People seem to be even more uncertain of robot guardians and dog walkers than they are of translators.

“If a person feels a need for a robot to take care of their pet, then perhaps that person shouldn’t have a pet,” said Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at Emory University, who studied dogs’ brains using an MRI scan. “Dogs’ evolutionary history is so intertwined with humans. It really does a disservice to them to put them with a robot.”

Yet, hundreds of people have already preordered an ORo to look after their pups.

“What ORo does is it captures all the data, and it takes care of their feeding, their physical, mental and emotional engagement, and it’s all encapsulated in one single unit,” said Divye Bhutani, the founder and chief executive officer of Ogmen Robotics, ORo’s parent company.

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The team behind ORo. (Omgen Robotics)

ORo can navigate a home with ease (though it can’t currently climb stairs), while tending to a dog’s daily needs. If ORo notices that a dog seems sad or anxious based on its body language, for example, the robot will play soothing music, initiate games or toss treats. Owners can also remotely connect with their pets via video chat. The data collected by the robot is contained within the device itself, Bhutani said, and is only shareable with user consent.

Those who have tested the robot say it simplifies pet ownership and ensures their dog is always in good company. “There’s something about the robot personality that was friendly and not intruding,” said Raj Kaul, who tested ORo on his 8-year-old poodle, Brady. “The companionship element is vital for me.”

Animal experts aren’t so sure.

Philip Tedeschi — co-director of the Institute for Animal Sentience and Protection, and a professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work — is wary of advanced pet technologies, namely translators and robotic companions. While he believes AI could have significant benefits for protecting wildlife and bolstering pet health, if taken too far, it could diminish the symbiotic connection between pet owners and animals.

“We might capture data that could serve a very functional or useful endeavor, but I think the downside is that it may actually make us less likely to meet each other’s social and emotional needs,” Tedeschi said, noting that humans and pets have mutually beneficial bonds. “I can guarantee that your dog would rather play with you than a robot. … From my standpoint, technology takes some of the magic out of these relationships.”

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ORo can navigate a home with ease (though it can’t currently climb stairs), while tending to a dog’s daily needs. (Omgen Robotics)

Still, he noted, AI has powerful potential to improve animals’ lives — if the well-being of our pets is the priority.

“My distrust is not directed at the technology as much as it is directed at people, and whether human beings have the capacity to use it in an ethical and moral manner,” Tedeschi said. “As we get the tools to learn more about animals, we need to be sure they’re being used for the right reasons.”

About this story

Editing by Bronwen Latimer. Copy editing by Sue Doyle. Design and development by Audrey Valbuena. Design editing by Betty Chavarria. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Project development by Evan Bretos and Hope Corrigan. Project editing by Marian Chia-Ming Liu.

Originally Posted on: The Washington Post

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