Power of animal-computer interaction showcased during colloquium, workshop at SICE


It was once thought that the use of technology by humans was one of the key traits that separated us from the animals.

Not anymore.

Christopher Flynn Martin, a researcher at the Indianapolis Zoo, recently visited the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering to showcase how technology is being used to better study animals in their natural state and examine the cognition of some animals, such as orangutans. Martin first held a colloquium for SICE students on his use of touch screens to conduct research with the orangutans in the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center at the Indy Zoo and later followed up that presentation with a workshop on animal-computer interaction in zoos and sanctuaries.

Martin was a guest of Christena Nippert-Eng, a professor of informatics and the director of Computing, Culture, and Society at SICE, whose research focuses on the intersection of technology and the social behavior of animals.

“Chris provided a beautiful introduction to the idea that informatics can be about non-human animals, too,” Nippert-Eng said. “There’s a whole new field of that focuses on using computing and interfaces that are digital technology to enrich the lives of animals.”

Martin hoped to bring a new perspective on technology and animals. Beyond his work with orangutans at the Indy Zoo, he showed examples of efforts to challenge animals in captivity to enrich their daily lives. Those included creating an opportunity for orangutans to collect tokens throughout their habitat that could be used in a vending machine, an automatic feeder for elephants that dropped hay onto a screen, allowing the elephants to interact with the feeder to pull the hay out, and playing a matching game with dolphins that allowed them to use echolocation on a panel and remain mentally stimulated.

Technology is also allowing animals to interact with humans. For instance, BG, a honey badger in captivity at the Johannesburg Zoo in South Africa, has his own Twitter account. Infrared sensors are used to trigger tweets from a bank of responses when BG walks by, drawing attention from the general public while also informing them of conservation efforts and facts about other zoo animals.

“I think we’re getting to the point in the development of technology where there are so many possibilities for applying new methods of enrichment to all sorts of animals and environments, such as zoos, pets, farm animals, and service animals,” Martin said. “Continually there is more and more permanent technology being used for them in more beneficial ways.”

Improved technology, including the miniaturization of cameras and enhanced sensors, also allows researchers to gain better insight into the behaviors of animals at a greater distance.

“I think one of the themes we see in animal psychology research with technology is that we’re able to do more with less required of the animals,” Martin said. “We’re able to develop technology that allows us to gain insight into their perceptual worlds without asking them to learn a whole set of behaviors to tell us what they’re thinking. The technology is becoming more passive.

“A great example is eye tracking. We can have animals watch videos, and we can tell what they’re looking at. We’re not asking the animal to learn anything. They don’t have to learn a task. They just have to watch a video. We’re able to get a cool insight into their minds without requiring a complicated set of learned behaviors.”

The workshop also included a session in which students came up with project ideas that could use technology to help enrich the lives of animals, whether they be in zoos or companion animals. Some of the ideas included a feeder for red pandas, creating a virtual hunt for tigers using a projected mouse that would ultimately lead the tigers to food, and creating an interactive waterpark for pigs to provide food, water, and mud, allowing them to control various aspects of the experience.

SICE students were fascinated to see the different ways technology has been developed to improve interaction with animals.

“I’m interested in a broader range of human-computer interaction, and it’s cool to think about what’s possible,” said Cassie Kresnye, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Proactive Health. “The data can help conservation efforts and get more people involved, which will help the animals in the long run.”

Suraj Chiplunkar, a first-year graduate student in HCI/d, was interested in how design principles varied among species.

“Chimpanzees and humans have the same design principles,” Chiplunkar said. “We have more evolved design principles because we are more complex, but pretty much, the basics are the same. That has been revealing and surprising for me. The idea of using technology to work with nature instead of against it by stimulating an animal’s instinct instead of teaching them new activities was interesting.”

Nippert-Eng said the field of animal-computer interaction that was on display is just the next step the evolution of human and non-human animal relationships.

“We have designed very specific technologies for animals throughout our history,” Nipper-Eng said. “ACI covers the gamut of technologies that people are using. We’re learning more about the animals than ever, and we’re asking them to do less than ever. It’s beautiful.”

For more information on colloquia events at SICE, visit our website.

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