The internet has brought education, entertainment, and more to the masses. There is no doubt information technology will shape humanity’s future, but who is to say it will not also affect the furry (and not so furry) friends with whom we share the planet? Many species on Earth have been blessed with eyes and ears, which allow them to recognize friend, foe, and food in the physical world. It is also possible they can recognize shapes and sounds presented virtually.
Recently, experiments and anecdotes have shown this is the case for a surprising number of species. Some animals have had very positive interactions with technologies usually enjoyed by people. In no particular order, here are ten technologies that animals can also enjoy.
10 Video Calls
Chatty pet parrots might keep their owners from feeling lonely, but parrots themselves can feel lonely and bored in captivity. In nature, parrots are social birds that live in large flocks. When kept indoors alone, they can suffer psychological issues and even self-harm. In 2023, scientists from Northeastern University, the University of Glasgow, and MIT researched a potential remedy for the poor parrots’ plight.
They had parrot owners teach their pets to video call. It took two weeks for 15 out of 18 parrots to learn how to place a call. After that, they could freely call their friends while their owners filmed them and took notes. After reviewing over 1,000 hours of footage, the researchers were surprised to learn the parrots understood that their partner was not pre-recorded and that they made friends—many called the same individual multiple times. Some would sing, play and show off their toys, while others taught skills such as flying and foraging. (LINK 1)
9 Podcasts for Dogs
Writing in 2023, it seems like everyone has a podcast today. Every interest and subculture has a signature voice, and social animals like dogs can be soothed by listening to them too. In fact, man’s best friend has a bespoke podcast designed to calm them when their owners are away. Alex Benjamin, a psychologist at the University of York, UK, helped create it. She conducted a study called “Who’s A Good Boy,” which investigated the effects of people’s voices on dogs’ behavior.
Benjamin used her findings to consult on “My Dog’s Favourite Podcast.” The podcast features actors giving dogs praise and telling them stories in soothing voices over soft music and ambient sounds. It is designed to relax dogs when they are home alone and cover up startling sounds which might scare them, such as slamming doors.
8 AI Robots
Advancements in AI might offer a solution for owners who are more concerned about their canines. While automatic pet feeders have existed for some time, prototypes are in development for a new generation featuring the latest technology. For example, a YouTube video published in April 2023 demonstrates a product called Companion. Companion is scheduled for release in 2024, and it uses AI to feed, speak to, and even train dogs.
Owners can view their dog’s data and video footage through a linked smartphone app. According to the company website, data the device collects about dogs’ routines and habits means owners could receive early warnings about serious health issues their pets might have. With growing concerns about AI taking people’s jobs, here is a rare example where it could do a useful job that hardly exists in the present because few people can afford to pay someone to do it.
7 Podcasts for Cows (Maybe)
It is well-recognized that soft human speech soothes cows. In scientific experiments, human voices are used to relax them. These are often pre-recorded and played on a speaker so that the conditions for each experiment remain constant. How can we know that a cow feels relaxed? In addition to physical cues such as their ears hanging down loosely, scientists have measured their heart rates and found that they are lower after listening to a soft human voice. So it is possible cattle might enjoy a podcast too.
However, it seems no one has taken on the challenge of recording a special “cow cast” just yet. Maybe that is because scientists also found that cows prefer the live experience more. To test this, cows were stroked while listening to either a recording of the stroker’s voice or the stroker speaking to them at the time. The heart rates of those who listened to the live speech were lower than the former group, indicating that they were more relaxed.
6 Music Streaming
You might think few things about humans impress cats, but they actually enjoy music. However, they mostly enjoy music that is specifically composed for cats. Even the musical accomplishments of composers like Bach and Fauré do not make the cut. A study by psychologists at the University of Wisconsin compared newly-composed “cat” music against a couple of classical favorites and found that cats only responded significantly to the cat music. They did not react to the classical music at all.
The cat music was composed by David Teie, who worked with a theoretical framework put together by the researchers which fit musical parameters to feline frequencies and communication patterns. The hypothesis of the researchers was that music must exhibit similarities to the natural communication of the species it intends to affect. The finished pieces—which include instrumental imitations of cats’ purrs and meows—were released as albums and are available to stream online.
In 2018, marine biologists in Florida decided to improve the lives of 16 rescued dolphins. To do so, the biologists looked to the human technology that has probably interested, informed, and improved the lives of the most people since its invention in the 20th century—television. There is a precedent for this among other species. For example, cats enjoy watching potential prey on TV. As with music, it seems most animals enjoy watching things related to their natural lifestyles.
Dolphins are different. Their tastes and general interest in watching TV vary as much as humans. Most enjoyed it, which they demonstrated by pressing their head up against the screen. Others were less enthused, or even angry, shown by head jerks and blowing bubbles. The study showed that, like other intelligent mammals, including cats, dogs, and chimpanzees, dolphins are stimulated by moving images. But for dolphins, the setting of the show does not need to be underwater.
4 Video Sharing
Many mammals enjoy watching videos, and gorillas are no exception. This is what a visitor to Louisville Zoo in Kentucky found out in 2017 before sharing her discovery with the rest of the world over the internet. When she reached the gorilla enclosure, she saw a lady showing a gorilla videos through the glass and decided to have a go herself. She quickly captured the great ape’s attention with videos of baby gorillas.
Soon, she had a new friend sitting by her side, watching the videos she shared through the glass. It seemed to enjoy them. If she moved her phone away, the gorilla would crane its neck to keep watching. Impressively, it also appeared to understand that it was watching something pre-recorded. If it wanted to watch a new video, it would raise its arm in a swiping motion.
3 Simple Video Games
While we are unlikely to see any streaming soon, a study published in 2021 showed pigs can play simple video games. They learned to associate their movement of a joystick with the movement of virtual objects on a screen well enough to deliberately play the game. They could not play games as well as primates, but bearing in mind pigs lack hands with opposable thumbs, and that they are far-sighted, their ability to play at all is incredible.
Nudging the joystick with their snout, they were tasked with moving an onscreen cursor into a virtual wall. At first, the pigs were rewarded with a food pellet for completing levels of the game. The pigs continued playing even after the food dispenser broke. However, this might be because the experimenters encouraged them verbally rather than with a sense of enjoyment or achievement. If the latter, video games might offer a way to improve the lives of these intelligent mammals.
2 Complex Video Games
Even less-intelligent primates can outplay pigs at video games, but some primates can outplay people. Well, people aged 3-6 years old. This is the result of a 2015 study that pitted four adult chimps against twelve human children and four adults. The participants were tasked with completing a virtual reality maze. Both groups had a chance to practice first. The chimps were given less practice time than the humans because they belonged to the Language Research Center at Georgia State University and had used the joystick setup before.
Overall, they were able to complete the mazes in a similar amount of time to the human children. One 22-year-old chimp outperformed all the humans. Primatologists have said that, unlike pigs but like people, chimps are curious and possess an intrinsic motivation to learn more about the world. Given enough time, they might be able to learn and tackle much harder games.
1 Artificial Limbs
Strangely, this is one of the oldest studies on the list. In 2011, scientists trained monkeys to use their brain waves to control a virtual arm on a computer screen. Using only electrical activity generated in their brains, a pair of rhesus monkeys showed that they could control the arm effectively and even feel the texture of objects on the screen due to feedback being passed into their brains simultaneously. The monkeys were initially trained to use a joystick to capture objects on a screen, being rewarded with fruit juice for doing so. Later, the scientists removed the joystick and replaced it with electrodes to capture the monkeys’ brain waves.
It took one of the monkeys just four attempts to figure out the new game. This research aimed to benefit humans—it demonstrated that an artificial limb could simultaneously be controlled while providing information about the texture of what it touches, exactly like a normal limb does. However, it is one of the most extraordinary examples of animal-technology interaction to date. As we have seen from other items in this list, technologies designed for humans may eventually benefit animals too.