[EDIT: Added more info on research methods. Addressed some common criticism. Added titles for video links and a few new vids. Prevented revolution with a military coup d'état]
A combination of surveys and bayesian estimates leads me to believe this community is interested in autism, cats, cognition, philosophy, and moral valence of animals. What I’m going to show you checks every box, so it boggles my mind that I don't see anyone talk about it. It has been bothering me so much that I decided to create an account and write this article.
I have two theories.
The community will ignore fascinating insight just because its normie coded. Cute tiktok-famous poodle doesn't pattern match to "this contains real insight into animal cognition".
Nobody tried to sell this well enough.
I personally believe in the second one and I'll try to sell it to you.
There’s an intervention to help non-verbal autistic kids communicate using “communication boards” (not to be confused with facilitated communication which has a bad reputation). It can be a paper board with pictures or it can be a board with buttons that say a word when pressed. In 2018 Christina Hunger (hungerforwords.com) - a speech pathologist working with autistic children using such boards - started to wonder if her dog was in fact autistic. Just kidding, she saw similarities in patterns of behavior between young kids she was working with ("learner" seems to be the term of art) and her dog. So she gave it a button that says “Outside” and expanded from there.
Now teaching a dog to press a button that says “outside” is not impressive or interesting to me. But then she kept adding buttons and her dog started to display capabilities for rudimentary syntax.
Stella the talking dog compilation - Stella answers whether she wants to play or eat, asks for help when one of her buttons breaks, alerts owner to possible "danger" outside.
(most of the good videos are on her Instagram @hunger4words, not much is on YouTube)
Reaction from serious animal language researchers and animal cognition hobbyists was muted to non-existent, but dog moms ate this stuff up. One of them was Alexis.
Most useful research is impractical to do within academia
The Importance of Methodology and Practical Matters
Ethology has some really interesting lessons about how important various practical matters and methodology can be when it comes to what your field can (and can't) produce. For example, it turns out that a surprising amount of useful data about animal cognition comes from experiments with dogs. […] The main reason is because they will sit still for an fMRI to be the goodest boy (and to get hot dogs). […] On the other side of that coin, elephants are clearly very smart, but we've done surprisingly little controlled experiments or close observation with them. Why? […] They're damn inconvenient to keep in the basement of the biology building, they mess up the trees on alumni drive, and undergrads kept complaining about elephant-patty injuries while playing ultimate on the quad.
A lot of useful research isn't done because it's too inconvenient, too expensive or otherwise impractical to execute within confines of academia. This is a massive shaping force. Existence of ImageNet and its quirks is a stronger shaping force on AI research than all AI ethics committees combined.
Nobody had done this before because it takes months of everyday training to get interesting results. Once your dog gets the hang of it, you’re able to add more buttons faster, but it’s never quick. Dogs take a while to come up with a response (they’re bright, but they’re not humans), and you can’t force your dog to learn, so you have to work together and find motivation (for the dog and for yourself!). And not every pet has a strong desire to communicate.
But it may be practical to do for a layperson
Lucky for us, Alexis has many more commendable qualities besides willing to spend time and effort on her dog. She maintains healthy skepticism, she's well aware of confirmation bias and "Clever Hans" effects and of the danger of over-interpreting the dog's output. She has partnered with researches from University of California, San Diego to have several cameras looking at the button pad running 24/7, for them to do more rigorous study.
Please watch this vid first where she gives a brief explanation of what she's doing, and importantly shows her attitude and skepticism towards her dog's "talking". She even namedrops Chomsky & Skinner 😄
This is an ongoing study with hundreds of participants and a mission to "use a rigorous scientific approach to determine whether, and if so, how and how much non-humans are able to express themselves in language-like ways". It's headed by Prof. Federico Rossano, Director of Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego and Leo Trottier, PhD Candidate, UC San Diego. The latter has websites selling dog soundboards and interactive pet toys, indicating a potential conflict of interest, but I also don't want to knock him for simply being enterpreneural.
They mention previous research with a dog named Rico and a border collie named Chaser (video of Chaser) that had rigorous experiments performed with an opaque barrier between the dog and the experimenter to preclude possibility of unwittingly influencing the dog's behavior. In those studies dogs were able to recognize 200+ toys by spoken name and perform fast-mapping (better known in some circles as one-shot learning). Encouraged by the studies they aim to ask:
Is what we're seeing clever dogs or merely Clever Hans? Can we explain the surprising button pressing behavior we're seeing using a simple first-order associative learning model, or will we have to reconsider the idea that language is an ability that is 'uniquely human'? And do we see any change in the type and complexity of communications that non-human animals (and dogs in particular) generate once they are able to use concepts that have been associated with buttons?
They're splitting the study into 3 phases:
Initial data collection, where they gather information about learners, their owners, methods of training and have participants log reports about when a specific word was first introduced, used in an appropriate context and used as part of a multi-button expression.
Video collection and analysis, where they get participants to install at least one video camera pointing at the soundboard that records every interaction. That allows them to see how button usage changes over time and to measure behavior more reliably and precisely.
Interactive studies: "Based heavily on the insights gained in phases 1 and 2, we will be piloting direct, controlled tests of learner sound button use and understanding that aim to determine how language-like learners' sound button use is. We anticipate that these will be done with a smaller number of participants."
Things I've seen the dog (appear to) do that surprised me
Bunny is creative with the limited button vocabulary available to her and tries to use words in novel ways to communicate: "stranger paw" for splinter in her paw, "sound settle" for shut up, "poop play" for fart, "paw" to refer to owner's hand.
Bunny "Talking" About Cats - "sound settle cat bye" to tell meowing cat to shut up. Also note how she reacts to the possibly random button presses after 2:13 and the big note about confirmation bias that she put in the video.
Bunny knows each of her doggy friends by name, thinks about them when they're not there, asks where they are, requests to play with them.
There's a long-running debate about whether human brains possess a special ability for language. Although "feral" human children who are raised with no language lose the ability to pick it up later in life. Maybe they could learn button talk, I don't think anyone tried for lack of steady supply of feral children.
But what I see is strongly suggestive that language facilities are not unique to us and a dog that is given ability to produce words and is taught from puppyhood with the same massive amount of effort that we put into human children will be able to talk. Don't get me wrong, I don't expect dogs to start writing poetry and doing particle physics. But I expect them to produce something that can undoubtedly be called language.
It's all "Clever Hans"
I don't think this can be explained by classic Clever Hans where the owner tells the dog what to do with subconscious cues. You see lots of interactions where the dog is supposed to make a decision and the owner doesn't know the right answer, or the dog alerts the owner to something they're unaware of.
First, it can't be all just conditioning. By induction: pets already communicate with owners to request things, teaching your dog to press "Food" instead of barking or "Outside" instead of scratching at the door simply changes the modality. Usage of simple buttons like that doesn't require clever hans or conditioning as an explanation.
Second, look at this video of Billi the cat. Assuming it's just conditioning, we'd expect the cat to always go "yes food" when asked about food, because it doesn't understand "yes" or "no". But here we see it getting practically railroaded by the owner and still refusing food, and in several different ways (first "no", then "all done later"). How could this happen if it was just simple conditioning?
The owners over-interpret and anthropomorphize the button "speech"
The is the biggest danger in my opinion. Hopefully with rigorous analysis during the study and specifically set up experiments we'll be able to understand better at what level of communication the dogs actually are.
Interestingly, at least for humans, misinterpretation may be a necessary requirement for language acquisition, as mentioned in this comment [LW(p) · GW(p)]! The short summary of the mechanism:
Toddler raises arms up randomly with no intention.
Mother thinks he wants to be held, so picks him up.
Toddler learns the association and the next time he raises his arms, it's an intentional attempt at communication.
Similarly for words, say "maa" randomly, mother comes and smiles excitedly, the association is built.
I think the videos are fake
I wrote a comment on that [LW(p) · GW(p)] and I think the videos are done in good faith. Of course this doesn't preclude other problems, Clever Hans was in good faith too, after all.
This doesn't look like real science, it's just "dog moms" enjoying a fun hobby, YouTube videos aren't evidence of anything.
Early stage science often looks like [LW(p) · GW(p)] "messing around", before theory and rigor is built. Telling what "messing around" is likely to be fruitful is a meta-rational skill, and it can be done, somewhat.
YouTube (and especially Instagram and TikTok) videos go against usual aesthetic sensibilities of what evidence looks like, but that's not a reason to discount them completely. They still constitute a lot of evidence, albeit the kind that is weak and easy to misinterpret. If we're to be good rationalists, we can't exclude the messy parts of the world and then expect to arrive at a useful worldview.
The work on the ground being done by laymen may be a blessing in disguise - I won't be surprised if taking a formal and procedural approach to training would "ruin the magic" and lead to poor results. Especially if mutual misinterpretation is an important part of the mechanism. I hope that given the number of participants in the study and the amount of data (every interaction recorded) and well-designed experiments will together let us separate signal from the noise.
So what, you ask, some apes have been taught sign language and they produced rudimentary syntax as well.
For starters you wouldn't predict dogs to be capable of the same, and it's significant to see that ability given their evolutionary distance from us (even with selective breeding pressure from domestication).
Most of the ape research was done in the 70s, and it is, well, very 70s. Those things aren't known for being well-run or replicating well. And it was done with sign language, perhaps buttons are much more conductive to language acquisition. Since the 70s craze, it apparently became unfashionable, and nothing new happened for decades. To this day any conversation on animal language is about Koko (who died in 2018) and the parrot who said "love you, bye" before dying in 2007. Utter stagnation.
What we have is something new, orders of magnitude easier to study and reproduce (how many of you have gorillas at home?), massive PR potential, modern tech that allows you to have cameras running 24/7 to preclude criticism. It started with an outsider to the field, who wasn't conceptionally limited by prior art. And it's accessible to regular people, potentially revolutionizing our relationship with our pets.
This raises the natural question: what if you gave an ape the buttons, and taught it from childhood, and put parent-level effort into it, not "70s research”-level effort? Perhaps the answer would surprise us.
[EDIT: Exactly this has been attempted with bonobos [LW(p) · GW(p)], but unfortunately little data is available and the experiment disintegrated over human drama. Read the linked comment for details and a few existing videos]
A cat who initially became famous for pressing "MAD MAD MAD" at a slightest inconvenience, but she has meollowed out a bit.
Mom’s Choice - appears to ask "mom" what she wants to play. Normally mom is the one asking her what toy she wants to play.
Imposter - an important video. In it, Billi repeatedly refuses food, despite the owner practically railroading her. With simple conditioning you could expect "want food hm?" -> "yes food" from the cat, without understanding of what "yes" or "no" is. But if all of this is just clever conditioning, why did this video happen?
Normie blindspot does exist in the community, but that's kind of obvious and expected, and should be a separate article. ↩︎
Possibly, they're not clear on the number of participants. I personally find it hard to believe that there would be more than about a hundred. ↩︎
In the layman sense of "tool for communication". Philosophical discussions about the exact border between non-language communication and "true language" aren't really interesting to me. Duck typing, etc. ↩︎
Another honorable mention is Chaser, a border collie who was trained and tested by John Pilley et al with a language design and testing regime that was specifically aimed at making Clever Hans criticisms impossible, and also to make it very clear that certain grammar recognition tasks could be statistically detected VS alternative ways to solve the linguistic challenge that "don't seem like they are doing language learning right"... What if a dog learns "fetchblue" as a single sound that lacks a breakdown into a coherent verb about an action and a coherent object named blue? What if, in the dog's head, "fetchblue" is just like a name for a scene that includes the object and the actions normally done with the object, in a giant swirl? Well...
They taught Chaser more than a 1000 proper names, and at least 3 verbs, and did tests with her in front of audiences using objects that (so far as they could tell from their notes?) hadn't been paired with the tested verb before.
Here's the kind of performance they could do, for video cameras, as supplementary material for the 2010 paper:
In the paper, they also claim something I'd previously thought impossible for dogs, which was to be able to learn to hear a common noun as a reference to a category of objects.
"Toys" were all the >1000 things Chaser knew the names of and had a right to play with because they were hers. The >100 "balls" were "toys" that were round and obvious to a human as balls. The >20 "Frisbees" were non-"ball" "toys" that were disc shaped and so on. Chaser seems to have learned to be able to "fetch ball" even when the ball was weird or named recently or named long ago or was far from her or was near to her.
(THEY DID NOT show in the paper that she could generalize this to novel un-named (non-"Toy"?) balls or frisbees. I'm not sure if the barrier was "they tried to teach and failed" or "they didn't have time to teach" or "they didn't think of it at all" or "Chaser got too old to learn quickly before that part of the curriculum happened" or what.)
The researchers seem to have been imagining objections to the data and processes (and had read objections to previous iterations) and trying to address them. I think dogs can probably be taught the concept and pragmatic linguistic uses of a common noun now (at least for recognition, if not for production), and I did not believe this before reading the paper about Chaser.
I'm not saying that Chaser had the concept of a noun from scratch, however. The methods section of the paper sounded a lot to me like the they used a combo of really empathically effective dog training techniques plus something more or less like Explicit Direct Instruction on "the idea of a common noun".
What seems to have happened is that every possible opportunity and encouragement was made to give Chaser the ability and incentive to have the insight that the word "frisbee" referred to her >20 named frisbees... and then she DID have the insight.
I was strongly tempted to try and hit ^z on the rewrite because in my experience embedded stuff changes over times and thus makes the writing "not able to persist in archives for the ages", but... :shrugs:
I'm not surprised that the article didn't have it. LessWrong has had the issue that "comment markdown stuff and article markdown stuff work differently" essentially forever.
Yep, sorry, we don't currently support Youtube embeds for the markdown editor. Just turned out to be much easier to implement for the WYSIWYG editor, since it came out of the box with the framework we are using.
I find it quite fascinating that in the videos I've seen with Bunny, she tends to use SOV word-order (Subject Object Verb) even though her owner always (that I've seen) uses the SVO order of English. Most The majority of human languages use SOV, about 75% 45% of the ones that care about word order. It seems to be mathematically convenient as well.
This sort of thing seems to suggest that EY's claims in this post [LW · GW] about the scale of the relative intelligence differences between chimps, a village idiot, and Einstein is incorrect. The difference in intelligence between village idiot and Einstein may be comparable to the difference in intelligence between some nonhuman animals and a human village idiot. Which is a priori surprising, given that human brains are very structurally similar to each other in comparison to nonhuman animal brains.
This was one of the most offbeat-but-surprisingly-on-point LW posts I've read in awhile. I quite appreciated the epistemic status woven throughout the post (i.e. concerns about Clever Hans, the steps attempted at addressing it, an the current status of how the jury is still out on some studies)
[edit: I thought the post's title and opening epistemic status line were too strong given the level of evidence displayed in the rest of the post. However, I appreciated the rest of the post for the way it summarized the evidence]
I had recently looked into "how robust is chimpanzee/gorilla sign language, or sound-button language." I was disappointed to find AFAICT a quite small number of case studies. So this article was timely for my interest.
I recall a line in HPMOR when Harry notes that scientists hadn't even bothered checking what a 4 year old human could understand until relatively recently, despite that not require any advanced modern technology. My takeaway from this article was "man, it is sad that we haven't had, like, 100 dog case studies, 100 pigs,100 chimpanzees, 100 gorillas, etc" all with concerted attempts to teach language with varying methodologies. C'mon civilization!
I have some skepticism about how reliable our inferences from the videos-linked-above can be. I think it's very easy to anthropomorphize. The woman interacts with her dog in a way that could easily be misleading, prime the dog, etc. On the other hand, her manner of interaction is basically how language-teaching works with young human children AFAICT. I like the idea of interacting with the dog normally as you would a 2-year-old human, while having the cameras running 24/7 so less biased people can look over the data.
This is an interesting response; mine is of the opposite valence. To me, this doesn't feel too dissimilar from something my cousin-who-is-into-pyramid-schemes would send me. I believe that this post has:
Large claims that are not evidence supported
Mirages of evidence that do not meaningfully constitute such
Cursory dismissal of potential concerns
Claims that set off alarm bells to me in this post include:
Your Dog is Even Smarter Than You Think
Epistemic status: highly suggestive.
There's a revolution going on and you're sleeping on it.
her dog started to display capabilities for rudimentary syntax
Once your dog gets the hang of it, you’re able to add more buttons faster, but it’s never quick. Dogs take a while to come up with a response (they’re bright, but they’re not humans), and you can’t force your dog to learn, so you have to work together and find motivation (for the dog and for yourself!). And not every pet has a strong desire to communicate.
Bunny is creative with the limited button vocabulary available to her and tries to use words in novel ways to communicate: "stranger paw" for splinter in her paw, "sound settle" for shut up, "poop play" for fart, "paw" to refer to owner's hand. ... Bunny knows each of her doggy friends by name, thinks about them when they're not there, asks where they are, requests to play with them. ... Bunny understands times of day like today, morning, afternoon, night. ... And can recall what time of day she went to the park. ... Bunny is quite obsessed over her bowel movements (how Freudian) and about her owners' poop cycle. ... Bunny communicates emotional states like mad, happy, concerned. And "ugh". ... Bunny wants to know what and why is a "dog". ... And whether Mom used to be a dog. And she can recognize herself in the mirror.
To me, these failed to be supported by more than what I think is cursory evidence:
1. The first three bullets are not explicitly supported, but are presumably supported by the rest of the article. Besides the support I quote and address after this, key supporting evidence seems to be: - Under Stella [LW(p) · GW(p)]: Explanation of a language learning system for autistic youth, the qualifications of the woman who precipitated this exploration, video of a dog seemingly pressing the buttons "bed", "all done", "come", "outside", and video of the dog seemingly pressing the buttons "help", "good", "want", "eat". -- I believe the videos are meant to be what constitutes evidence in this section.
There are some aspects of the videos that I think lend them some credibility: The dog uses the same paw to hit each button (seems more deliberate), approaches the pad slowly (seems more deliberate), may be looking at each button prior to pressing (ambiguous, but possibly lends credibility), and to my untrained eye it seems as if the video was indeed taken in one shot.
I also think there are aspects to the video aren't compelling: If I were to create a board of what appears to be 40 general words, I'd imagine that I could assign meanings to many, perhaps most, random combinations. The meanings and word combinations portrayed here seem at least somewhat unlikely to be of high utility nor continuous thought. Why would a dog want to tell its owner "bed" "all done", and why would an owner want to know that? Dogs tend to wake up and fall asleep quickly and frequently throughout the day. They don't tend to have a nap time and difficulty waking up as if a toddler. There's also no need for "come" to be paired with "outside", "outside" is enough to request a walk. I tend to believe that simplicity would dominate here, and the complexity and interpretation necessary for these begs my credulity. The second word pairing, "help" "good" "want" "eat" really doesn't have an obvious meaning from my perspective. "Help" "want" "eat" is more clear, for example, or "help" "eat". This, to me, feels more likely to have been reading in to a random combination (at least when considering the first two words separately from the second two) than one coherent thought or expression. When trying to present evidence of a ~talking dog, I would expect there to be many, many videos of more plausible expression; these two as the leading evidence feels particularly questionable. I don't have any reason to think that these videos are doctored, but FWIW, it would seemingly be easy to replace the audio (or control it remotely) to say whatever is desired.
I planned to go through this post point by point, but am finding myself wanting to move on for time efficiency reasons (I've also switched to an anonymous username given time constraints and associated limits to my presentation of this argument). I'll quickly cover the remainder of the post:
- The Bunny section presents two types of evidence: videos and links to ongoing academic studies (without results). The videos are particularly not compelling, much less so than Stella's. These videos show large gaps in time between button presses, uses of different paws, not looking at the buttons, word combinations that do not obviously have meaning, seeming disinterest from the dog, and many instances of multiple shots such that you're trusting that they comprise one, rather than multiple timelines. I really struggle to find anything compelling about these. The links to ongoing studies particularly pattern match to me for those who try to fein credibility; an ongoing study without results is not an indicator of there being a positive result.
The Koko section does not present any evidence, and the honorable mentions section presents more videos, which I didn't review for time efficiency reasons.
I also find that there was only cursory dismissal of potential concerns, which I why I was quite surprised to see your opposite take:
> quite appreciated the epistemic status woven throughout the post (i.e. concerns about Clever Hans, the steps attempted at addressing it, an the current status of how the jury is still out on some studies)
The only mention of Clever Hans merely says that the researcher is "well aware" of it. I don't see any discussion of attempts to address it. Regarding studies, the jury appears to still be out on ALL studies. I think this is partially recognized but also understated in the article; the only relevant quote is:
> She has partnered with researches from University of California, San Diego to have several cameras looking at the button pad running 24/7, for them to do more rigorous analysis. Presumably there's an actual paper on the way.
On the whole, this being curated (and the size of upvotes) has been one significant contributor to my feeling as though the state of critical readership and response on LW is much worse than what my prior was prior to more closely engaging lately. This article in particular feels not too dissimilar from something I could imagine on e.g. Buzzfeed; it just says some big things with very little substantive evidence and some maneuvers that seem most commonly used to weakly mask the lack of credibility of the argument. I'd love to hear your response; I think there is some likelihood that I'll update or at least better understand this forum's readership.
I'm not sure that we disagree much about how likely Bunny is to be doing complex language. My primary takeaway was not "this dog can talk", it's "man, we really should be checking more comprehensively whether dogs can talk." I tried to be pretty clear about that in the curation notice.
I think early stage science looks more like messing around than like rigorous studies. I think you need to do a lot of messing around before you get to a point where you have something to rigorously study. My curation of this is a celebration of checking things and being curious, not an endorsement of the theory.
I think I do agree that the post's title and opening epistemic status are too strong (and yeah I think it was a mistake not to include that in the curation notice. I'll edit it to do so).
I don't think it's fair to say my dismissal of concerns is "cursory" if you include my comments under the post. Maybe the article itself didn't go deep enough, partly I wanted it to scan well, partly I wanted to see good criticism so I could update/come up with good responses, because it's not easy to preempt every criticism.
As for cursory evidence, yes it's mostly that, but cursory evidence can still be good Bayesian evidence. I think there's enough to conclude there's something interesting going on.
Are the vids even real?
For starters, all of this hinges on videos being done in good faith. If it's all creative editing of pets' random walks (heh) over the board, then of course we should dismiss everything out of the gate.
For Stella IIRC all of the interesting stuff is on Instagram @hunger4words, so I only had those two YouTube vids. I agree they're not the best for leading evidence.
Please watch this video even if you have time constraints (it works fine at 1.5x speed).
She shows (excessive IMO) humility and defers to who she considers experts.
Considers herself a "hopeful skeptic", when Bunny does something unexpectedly smart, she still wonders if it's just coincidence (at 4:05). Also she namedrops Skinner and Chomsky 😄
Makes a point to put "Talking" in scare quotes in her video titles.
Tells a realistic story, where it took "a few weeks" for Bunny to learn just a single "Outside" button, takes "a thousand tiny reinforcements" to keep learning. And shows many examples of how she does the training.
Explains how she teaches abstract concepts like "Love you" and acknowledges it's not the same concept to the dog, but it has "an affectionate meaning".
In many videos we see Bunny take a looong time to respond. The dog goes away from the board (to "think" presumably) and later comes back with an answer. Those parts are sometimes cut out but usually just sped up. If it's all fake, why include that?
In some Bunny videos we see random "tantrums". Which shows what a truly random walk sounds like and if she's selling us a bridge, why include that in the videos?
"Conversations" are mostly very mundane and doglike and she doesn't show any truly amazing feats of intellect. She doesn't even try to teach the dog to count!
Claims to have cameras constantly pointed at the board for research, and indeed in many of her clips there are lower quality parts shot from a constant angle. That is consistent with "something interesting happened but she wasn't filming at the time". A big tell of fake/staged videos is that someone just happened to be filming at that exact moment despite nothing seeming to prompt that.
On the balance of evidence, Alexis doesn't look like someone who's trying very hard to convince you of her magic talking dog to sell you $250 online dog communication courses. And don't say "Amazon affiliate links", even Scott has done that.
But a bigger part of why I updated towards "there's something there" is that there are several people who recreated this. Of course it's possible that every one of them is also fake, but that would be a bigger reach. Or it could be that it's easy to delude yourself and overinterpret pet output, but then the videos are still in good faith and that's what we're determining here.
Here's a video of Billi the cat where she repeatedly and consistently refuses food. Which is the opposite of what usually happens, the owner tries to railroad her and she still says no.
As with Bunny, you can see that the cat takes forever to respond.
If it was just clever training to always respond yes to food with no understanding, why did this happen?
It smells like Buzzfeed and I'm disappointed in LW
It kind of does, but that wasn't the model. What I had in the back of my mind is "if Eliezer gets to do it, then I get to do it too". I think the community simply likes boldly stated (and especially contrarian) claims, as long as it doesn't go too far off-balance.
I didn't consciously go for any "maneuvers" to misrepresent things. IMO the only actually iffy part is the revolution line (steelman: even if your pet can tell you what they actually want to do instead of your having to guess, that's a revolution in communication).
And I think I hedged my claims pretty well. This stuff is highly suggestive, my position is "hey, despite the trappings of looking like fake viral videos, you should look at this because it's more interesting than it looks at first glance". I expect that we'll learn something interesting, but I don't have any certainty about how much. Maybe after rigorous analysis we'll see that dogs do only rudimentary communication and the rest is confirmation bias. Maybe we'll learn something more surprising.
To me, this doesn't feel too dissimilar from something my cousin-who-is-into-pyramid-schemes would send me.
This article in particular feels not too dissimilar from something I could imagine on e.g. Buzzfeed; it just says some big things with very little substantive evidence and some maneuvers that seem most commonly used to weakly mask the lack of credibility of the argument.
I expected more complaints of this kind, so I was pleasantly surprised. I can easily imagine structurally similar arguments from someone who thinks AI alignment or cryonics are weird "nerd woo". If we're to be good rationalist we have to recognize that most evidence isn't neatly packaged for us in papers (or gwern articles) with hard numbers and rigorous analysis. We can't just exclude the messy parts of the world and expect to arrive at a useful worldview. Sometimes interesting things happen on Instagram and Tiktok.
To be honest, a few of the reasons you decide the evidence is "not compelling" are pretty weird. Why does it matter if the dog uses one paw or both paws? Why is it weird that a dog has a "bed time"? What is "seeming disinterest" from the dog and what makes you think you can see that? Why do you expect dogs to strive for brevity and being "more clear"?
I appreciate your response, and my apologies that for time-efficiency reasons I'm only going to respond briefly and to some parts of it.
I don't think it's fair to say my dismissal of concerns is "cursory" if you include my comments under the post. Maybe the article itself didn't go deep enough, partly I wanted it to scan well, partly I wanted to see good criticism so I could update/come up with good responses, because it's not easy to preempt every criticism.
I'm somewhat sympathetic to this. I do feel as though given large claims e.g. "revolutionary" and the definite rather than the hedge in the title, it was worth doing more than the cursory in the article itself. I haven't read your comments nor looked at the timing of them, but I imagine some to most readers read the article without seeing these comments. I'm saddened that those readers likely had much too strong a takeaway and upvoted this post.
As for cursory evidence, yes it's mostly that, but cursory evidence can still be good Bayesian evidence. I think there's enough to conclude there's something interesting going on.
This stuff is highly suggestive,
I agree with the first and not with the second. I think this is lightly suggestive and I strongly suspect LWers who accept this level of evidence as highly suggestive will have some pretty inaccurate models of the world. For example, I do think most mommy-blogger, or pyramid-scheme, etc. things we see all over social media present similar, if not typically higher, levels of evidence.
What I had in the back of my mind is "if Eliezer gets to do it, then I get to do it too".
I'm somewhat new to this community, so FWIW, while I certainly know who Eliezer is and have read some of his stuff, I don't understand this reference.
I think the community simply likes boldly stated (and especially contrarian) claims, as long as it doesn't go too far off-balance.
I find this quite disappointing, and would have expected the LW community to be better.
I can easily imagine structurally similar arguments from someone who thinks AI alignment or cryonics are weird "nerd woo". If we're to be good rationalist we have to recognize that most evidence isn't neatly packaged for us in papers (or gwern articles) with hard numbers and rigorous analysis. We can't just exclude the messy parts of the world and expect to arrive at a useful worldview. Sometimes interesting things happen on Instagram and Tiktok.
I don't necessarily disagree with this, but I do think the arguments for AI alignment and cryonics have been much more thoughtfully presented, with approximately appropriate calibration.
steelman: even if your pet can tell you what they actually want to do instead of your having to guess, that's a revolution in communication).
For dogs at least, there's a threshold beyond which this would have to reach, to me, to start to become true (same with the title; the behaviors shown don't necessarily point to me updating my priors). I've had three dogs, each of which had clear indicators for wanting to go out (e.g. pawing at the outside door, showing excitement when I asked) and wanting food.
I didn't consciously go for any "maneuvers" to misrepresent things.
FWIW I absolutely believe this, and the rest of your points e.g. about the videos are well-taken. Thank you for your thoughtful response.
> Please watch this video even if you have time constraints (it works fine at 1.5x speed).
I'm not sure I understand why this was recommended; it didn't seem notable to me and is more of a lets-feel-good-about-this video than anything.
I am super-duper surprised she says it took a few weeks to teach the Outside button! It took about... 15 minutes to teach my dog to use her Food bell. And then the Outside bell and Treat bells were similarly fast. I don't think button pressing is inherently harder than bell ringing, so that shouldn't make a difference.
I guess if the dog was starting at zero training it would take two weeks. (Robin already knew how to Target an item, which she learned after learning hand Touch, which she learned as part of the process of teaching how clicker-like training with positive reinforcers works in the first place. )
I can imagine abstract words like "Tomorrow" and "Where" taking a whole lot longer, but the words that are just ways to obtain concrete things are extremely easy to teach. Outside bells are a very well-known and frequently-done thing. Look them up on Amazon and you'll see about 20 options for sale.
I like the idea of interacting with the dog normally as you would a 2-year-old human, while having the cameras running 24/7 so less biased people can look over the data.
Yeah it's an important point that some phenomena (perhaps most phenomena) are impractical to recreate under a strict research protocol. If you tried to teach your dog with a very formal approach, you'd probably "lose the magic" that makes it happen. Kaj Sotala posted a comment [LW(p) · GW(p)] that suggests that "incorrect" overinterpretation of babies' behavior is actually an important mechanism by which the learning happens! It's a slow, messy, iterative process to get that "meeting of minds".
I also really like the research setup, and I'm glad they're sourcing from several pet households. Most of the attention is on Bunny, because she's the most coherent and is actively posted on YouTube, but I believe there are quite a few more people participating, they just don't post it publicly.
And even though the learning process isn't under strict protocol, you can still design more rigorous experiments. AFAIK the mirror near Bunny's buttons was placed at the suggestion of the researchers specifically to see if she'll recognize herself in the mirror.
The fact that this post was curated, and raised so little concern in the comments is worrying.
The author expresses himself maniacally in a mix of meme-speak and LW-lingo. The main claim is never really clarified*, but is presented as if it were, and in an outrageous way. There is no evidence besides YouTube videos**. I have no idea what is going on, and don’t even know where to start.
Comparative cognition is a real scientific field. If you’re interested in the cognitive abilities of non-human animals, and how they compare with the abilities of other species, then there’s a whole scientific literature you can take a look at. Ironically, this post sends us back to the lowest of this field, more than a century ago, when researchers made abundant use of observational anecdotes and interpreted them as they wished.
*None of the videos linked show a use of language at the level of even a child, so it can’t be “Dogs can speak”. Incidentally, nobody ever doubted that dogs can communicate with humans, especially regarding things as food, the presence of other animals or affection.
**That is, cherry-picked, sometimes even edited, videos where the owners of the dog superimposes what they think the dogs are saying.
Really? The main claim is presented "in an outrageous way"?
I can imagine reading the post and being unconvinced by the evidence presented. In fact, that was my reaction (although I haven't watched the videos yet). But... being outraged?
Posts should not make large, unsupported claims, and criticism should not be hyperbolic. Here is what I have learned from your critique:
You think that StyleOfDog writes "maniacally" and uses "meme-speak" too much.
Unclear why I should care. Not my favorite style of writing, but I understood what they were trying to say, and so communication occurred. It's not obvious to me that marginally more "meme-speak" would be bad for the site. It just read informally to me, which I don't mind for this kind of "fun / curiosity" post.
Ironically, your comment is hard to parse. The structure is scattered, which disorients me as I read your critique. In particular, you include two footnotes in quick succession, destroying flow. You could have just left them in the body of the comment.
You found the main claim unclear.
At least you formulated a hypothesis? I'm unsure why you found it unclear.
You are outraged.
Since you made a new account, I can't even Bayes-update based on existing reputation.
StyleOfDog didn't mention the field of comparative cognition.
Thank you. This is a substantive critique, and a field I didn't know how to name.
You worry about cherry-picking.
Ideally, you would have pointed to specific videos. No problem that you didn't.
It sounds to me like you're thinking of curated as 'vetted' or 'confident', while Ray is thinking of it more as 'representing a direction we want to see LW move in more' (including 'this topic seems neglected here, I'd like to see it get more attention').
It's the difference between 'curation is like publishing a non-replication-crisis-y journal article or encyclopedia article, a durable summary of humanity's knowledge we can call back to and base further conclusions on', versus 'curation is like sending out an email to a private researcher mailing list you run "hey, I'd love to see more discussion here in the vein of X"'.
To me, and I expect to a group of other readers as well given upvotes to my comments and those of @subconvergence, this is a direction we really think LessWrong should not go in.
I think Raemon is able to see some appeals of this post that are something like:
Boggling at the world is good, and we don't get as much of that as we'd like
People reading this post may be able to form their own takeaway, which is something like "man, we really should be checking more comprehensively whether dogs can talk.", and ideas like that are worth sharing.
I think there are some significant problems with this, however:
This post doesn't really advocate boggling at the world, instead it makes specific, strongly worded claims that there is already decently meaningful evidence of something.
This post does not really advocate for that takeaway, and to the extent someone thinks it does, it's certainly far from the most prominent message.
If LWers took-this-to-heart, there are likely between 10,000-1,000,000 things of similar potential interest and evidence base that could be shared in this way, the vast majority of which are highly unlikely to be proven out.
Furthermore, in addition to thinking that if I've guessed at Raemon's motivations correctly, they're based on flawed reasoning for the above 3 reasons, I think there are other factors that make this actively damaging:
This makes strongly worded claims that are either untestable (assumptions on LW readership's priors in title), or not nearly supported by the evidence.
It employs a number of techniques that, to some, are seemingly effective at actively misleading them (see bullets 2 and 3 of my previous comment [LW(p) · GW(p)], I also find a number more employed in the author's comments).
This, to me, pattern matches with LWers having much less critical readership than expected, and than should be warranted when confronting a post of this type, which I've observed in multiple prominent instances over the past ~3 months of newly close engagement. I think continued promotion of articles with poor calibration, with a lack of critical comments (and instead unwarranted enthusiasm), will further degrade LW's state of discourse. Even if this is the only article of this type, and I'm wrong about some of the others, I think even one instance of promoting something that is a better fit for Buzzfeed is at least somewhat damaging.
I do think there's a post that fits my guess at Raemon's appeal of this post (the two bullets above) and avoids all the numbered issues I outline afterward, but this post is a far departure from that hypothetical one.
Plenty of concern was raised in the comments, have you gone through all of them and all the replies?
I'm aware of comparative cognition, the people posting the pet videos are participating in ongoing research at the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego. They give a description of their methodology, but the status updates appear hidden to ensure integrity of the data.
Short recap of the comments: This is a very new thing, early-stage science often looks like messing around [LW(p) · GW(p)], so don't expect lots of rigor so early. If they had a paper, I would post that. On the balance of evidence, the videos seem to be made in good faith [LW(p) · GW(p)], I don't think it's some staged viral crap. Don't discount evidence just because it's normie YouTube vids. The main claim is that there's something interesting going on that makes me suspect dogs could possibly produce something that looks like language. I'm not claiming certainty on that or on the level of dogs' supposed language ability, it's research in progress, but I think it's exciting and worth studying.
Thanks for responding, and also for illustrating all the issues I have in your post in a compressed way. Basically, what you're saying is:
Something new and exciting is happening
There's not a lot of evidence BUT
I think this community should be able to see the issue there. (To also be polemical, occultism was also something that was new and exciting in the 19th century, with many intellectual of their time spending their evening around a turntable, most of them also in good faith when they reported paranormal activity.)
1. is being conditioned on something really happening in 2.
But 2. has a lot of issues and you know it, and I think you do a bad job at convincing me. Your justifications are:
"There's a study ongoing": good, I haven't read the methods and it's probably interesting, but there are no results yet. Maybe you could summarize it to people then if you want to introduce us to this work?
"videos are made in good faith": Clever Hans, the most infamous exemple in comparative cognition, was literally also in good faith
"don't discount evidence just because it's normie YouTube vids": what evidence again? and evidence to what?
The main claim is that there's something interesting going on that makes me suspect dogs could possibly produce something that looks like language.
Ok, but you'll have to define what you mean by "language" here because even if the videos are made in "good faith" (which again doesn't make the owners immune to biaises, even if they can name drop Clever Hans), I don't see the dogs using a well defined grammar, nor adding unseen words to their vocabulary, nor composing existing structures to create new ones.
Their "language", even in the best case, seems to be "bag-of-word" based, or simple sequences of a few words that could be learned by reinforcement, especially given the owner's involvement. It also relies on the contextual pressing of a couple buttons, which again doesn't qualify for language. Finally, it also relies extensively on the owners interpretations.
All the recorded interactions span the course of a couple "sentences". I didn't see any "discussion" longer than that, but feel free to link a more impressive video as I didn't watch them all.
You say you're aware of comparative cognition, so you should have heard about Morgan's Canon.
All of what I've seen in the few videos I watched can be very well explained using a mix of:
the dogs are heavily trained to produce some basic sentences composed of few words that give the illusion of grammar
the rest of the time dogs are able to map stimuli to some single buttons
dogs responds to physical and speech cues from their owner about which button to press (they are heavily encouraged to press some buttons to please their owner and get a reward)
heavy selection biais in the choice of videos
Given the extraordinary amount of efforts that went into training the animals in the videos, the results seem to be in accordance with what we already knew about cognition in dog.
This is a cool hobby for people who love their dogs and want to spend a lot of time training them. Not a groundbreaking discovery.
In the end, I think you and many other people here are being fooled by:
The fact that you like dogs as animal companions (and find cognition in non-human animal amazing in general, which I understand)
The fact that they're using speakers with pre-recorded speech, which gives you the illusion of language
I agree I should've summarized the study methodology in the article. For some reason I expected people to click the links and actually read and watch everything (this is not a knock on anyone, one shouldn't expect that when writing articles).
There is a lot of evidence, it's just weak and easy to misinterpret, and it's in the form of youtube vids, which goes against aesthetic sensibilities of what "evidence" looks like. If you want to have a holistic picture, you'll have to actually watch a lot of them, I'm sorry.
I think it's quite obvious that the evidence here has a rather different shape from 19th-century medium reports or grainy VHS tapes with a blob that is claimed to be the Loch-Ness monster.
Being able to tell which "messing around" is likely to be fruitful is a meta-rational skill, but it can be done. Somewhat. To me this has a "shape" of something that could be fruitful, but I can't transfer the pattern matching inside my brain to yours.
Vids being done in good faith doesn't preclude clever hans or overinterpretation. It precludes the vids being fake or staged.
I and others addressed multiple times the dangers of seeing phantoms in noise and operant conditioning. I don't see anyone here who doesn't acknowledge that. Classic clever hans is unlikely [LW(p) · GW(p)] when the owner doesn't know the right answer or the pet is supposed to make a decision, or alert the owner to something they're unaware of.
The danger IMO isn't clever hans as much as misinterpreting and anthropomorphizing button "speech". Which counter-intuitively may be an important part of language acquisition (in humans, at least): Kaj_Sotala wrote such an interesting comment [LW(p) · GW(p)], sadly few people read it. I'll summarize the idea: the first time a toddler raises his arms, it's random, but mom misrepresents and thinks he wants to be held and so holds it. The toddler learns the association, and the next time he holds his arms up, it's not random, now it's a deliberate signal.
"looks like language" != "language". Personally I don't care about philosophical arguments about the exact border between non-language communication and "true language". It's enough for me to see some elements of human language use to make this interesting, even if it doesn't check every box.
The pets are trained by reinforcement learning by design. Just saying "it's all reinforcement learning" isn't saying anything, the question is what exactly you reinforce, and if you manage to reinforce not just simple associations like "food" or "toy", but also states of affect and more abstract concepts.
Don't overuse anthropomorphizing. Claiming the dog pressing "mad" is feeling a human-like emotion and is going to hold a grudge, instead of just feeling negative affect is anthropomorphizing. Claiming that dogs can feel fear, excitement or positive/negative affect is not.
Claiming people here are "fooled" is a bit derogatory to others, especially with the reasons you gave for that.
I think both of us made our arguments clear, so instead of answering point by point, let me give a quick holistic response that should summarize what I think, and provide a general interesting point of view on animal cognition.
(Maybe you know about the following, but I think it is interesting enough by itself to be presented here to other people)
Corvidae are very intelligent birds. There's ton of evidence of that. You can read studies that test how they can solve problems, you can watch tons of youtube videos showing them interact with their settings and with other animals. These videos are all made in good faith, showing birds evolving in ecological or lab settings, and demonstrating their intelligence.
As you put it, you can build an "holistic picture" of them as very strong problem solvers.
Then comes this observation. You see crows dropping nuts on the road. Cars go over the nuts, crushing them. The crows delight themselves with the opened nuts.
What do you conclude? That the crows are using the passage of cars as a way to break the nuts open? Considering the abilities demonstrated by these birds, it seems like the logical hypothesis to me.
And so this was that a lot of people though back then (Maple 1974, in Cristol et al. 1997). Then people put this assertion to test (Cristol et al. 1997).
[The authors] reasoned that if crows were using cars as tools, the birds would be more likely to drop nuts onto the road when cars were coming than when the road was empty. Furthermore, if a crow was standing in the road with an uncracked walnut as a car approached, it should leave the nut in the road to be crushed rather than carry it away.
This was not what they observed. Despite the apparent simplicity of this hypothesis, crows do not use automobiles as nut-crackers. (If I remember right, the nut-dropping behavior is just standard crow behavior, I'm not even sure they took advantage of the concrete surface).
When dealing with animal cognition, you have to be extra-careful. You have to clearly define the abilities you want to talk about. And you have to put them to test rigorously, by assuming the "lowest" (whatever that mean) cognitive faculties. I don't think no amount of weak evidence can go over that, especially since there seems to be so much emotional charge involved.
EDIT: There's just one thing. You and some people here seem to think there are going to be some consequences to what is being discussed. Please feel free to post your predictions about what will be the outcomes. I predict FluentPet is at best going to become a niche hobby down the road, with less than 1% of dog owners having trained their pet in 10 years.
I think we're mostly in agreement, and I'm not disputing that it pays to be careful when it comes to animal cognition. I'd say again that I think it's a meta-rational skill to see the patterns of what is likely to work and what isn't, and this kind of stuff is near-impossible to communicate well.
I've read about the car-nutracker thing somewhere, but without the null result from research. If you had asked me to bet I'd say it would be unlikely to work. But it's illustrative that we both still agree that corvids are smart and there's a ton of evidence for it. We just don't know the exact ways and forms, and that's how I feel about the dog thing. There's something there but we need to actually study it to know the exact shape and form.
I predict FluentPet is at best going to become a niche hobby down the road, with less than 1% of dog owners having trained their pet in 10 years.
I don't think it will be niche because it's already not niche, considering the massive viewership. But your 1% figure sounds about right as a higher bound, given the sheer number of dog owners, the amount of work required and people's low desire to train their pets. A cursory google search says 4% of US dog owners take a training class, so serious button use will have to be a fraction of that.
Being interested in the lethality of cigarettes or the likelyhood of climate change would also deal in being interedsted in issues where high-scrutinity or high social status stances are not available.
I do think that people have an easier time reading a bit too much into it because the buttons are so legible for humans.
The buttons were developed for communication needds for deaf people. Would not pressing buttons in that cotext qualify as peech? What is the relevant difference to make that not apply there?
I am wondering whether this is a too short conversation. This would probably be of good length. To me it feels there is a discernible difference in the level of vividity that the dog follows on the stories. Also On taht linked place the dog is "confused" by a new word which to me reads as a behaviour about actively trying to keep on board with the story and adaptation to expand vocabulary by talking (if not by definition which the human tries to hand over).
To my underdstanding the core vocabulary needs to be bootstrapped by reinforcdement anyway so that doesn't make it a disqualifying attribute. YOu can't learn chinese with only the help of a dictionary in chinese. But until the dogs have a primary language they can not keep developing their language skills by simply talking, it needs to link to their "actual" life.
The interesting thing about K'eyush being commanded around is that it is more like a negotiation. For a command the dog can react by complying, saying "no" or saying "why". And when they say "why" then giving an explanation can give compliance without repeating the command (but then the dog can also think the reasoning is a rubbish one): I do wonder on what basis judging whether other humans are talking a language the observer doesn't understand vs speaking gibberish. And when tourists are aboard don't they use "bag-of-word" kind of communication a lot? But also doesn't that actually serve for the genuine thing?
I watched the first two videos and was kinda shocked. I could see the dog thinking. Like, it stopped, was slow, then made a deliberate choice to click certain words. It was not something I believed a dog could do. I feel way more like I could chat with a dog. I have a bunch more empathy for dogs too now.
I think there’s a fair chance that somehow this is a mistake / a fluke, but have now visualized the world where it’s not, and it’s really cool.
I found the first conversations(?) here very interesting:
It seems like a lot of the words could be swapped for each other or reordered and still look meaningful, so you could get a lot of the way to these conversations(?) just by learning what general categories of words tend to produce surprise/confusion (seemingly irrelevant words like 'stranger', 'friend', 'oops', 'dog', 'hi') versus happiness/engagement ('walk', 'outside', 'beach', 'now', 'soon', 'please', 'want', 'go', 'why', 'when') when you want to go for a walk. I'll certainly be interested to see what falls out of a larger-scale analysis of videos/transcripts.
I've been watching this with interest when youtube randomly serves me videos (I sometimes search youtube for things like "crows playing", so I think the algorithm figured out that I like animal intelligence videos), but I wasn't aware of everything you mentioned.
imagines a future where people would be surprised to learn that humans thought animals couldn't talk
Thanks for this! This definitely does intersect with my interests; it's relevant to artificial intelligence and to ethics. It does mostly just confirm what I already thought though, so my reaction is mostly just to pay attention to this sort of thing going forward.
From reading the discussion, I get the impression that some of the commenters are writing from a position of "the prior is against significant dog intelligence, and the evidence here could have alternative explanations, so I'm skeptical". That is, the people feel that it would be quite surprising if dogs really were this intelligent, so establishing it requires some pretty compelling evidence.
At the same time, my own feeling is more like "there's no strong prior against significant dog intelligence, and the evidence here could have alternative explanations, so I'm being tentatively open to this being real". As in, even if you hadn't shown me these videos, dogs being approximately as intelligent as described would have seemed like an entirely plausible possibility to me.
If there are any people who feel like my first paragraph does describe them, I'd be curious to hear why they're coming into this discussion with such a strong prior against dog intelligence.
If I had to articulate the reasons for my own "seems plausible" prior, they'd be something like:
a general vague sense of animal research tending to generally show that animals are smarter than people often think
some of the animals in books like "Don't Shoot the Dog [LW · GW]" sounding relatively smart (e.g. vaguely recall the author mentioning that training often speeds up once the animal figures out that it's being trained, since then it can explicitly try to figure out what the trainer is trying to reward it for)
I once videotaped a beautiful Arabian mare who was being clicker-trained to prick her ears on command, so as to look alert in the show ring. She clearly knew that a click meant a handful of grain. She clearly knew her actions made her trainer click. And she knew it had something to do with her ears. But what? Holding her head erect, she rotated her ears individually: one forward, one back; then the reverse; then she flopped both ears to the sides like a rabbit, something I didn't know a horse could do on purpose. Finally, both ears went forward at once. Click! Aha! She had it straight from then on. It was charming, but it was also sad: We don't usually ask horses to think or to be inventive, and they seem to like to do it.
even relatively simple AI systems exhibiting surprisingly intelligent behavior (GPT-3), suggesting that there isn't necessarily a sharp distinction between human and less-than-human intelligence
I think you hit the nail on the head here. When I was writing the article I definitely had someone with a high prior in mind, to the point where I expected people to say "so what, why wouldn't dogs do that if you trained them".
Sometimes people seem to put dogs closer to reflexive automatons like insects than to fellow mammals. My prior is the base affects that we feel aren't fundamentally different between us and dogs (and most higher mammals). I'm talking about stuff like fear, excitement, generalized negative or positive affect, tiredness, sexual arousal. Even something like craving a specific food, I don't see why it should be unique to us, given that dogs are often picky eaters and have favorite foods.
People with strong priors against dog intelligence seem to ascribe everything to anthropomorphism, and there's often an undertone of "these people are too soft and weak, they call themselves ridiculous things like 'dog parents', they'll project human baby characteristics onto a Furby if you gave them the chance". FWIW I don't have a dog and don't plan to, and in my experience most dogs are fairly dumb. But to me they're clearly a bit more than simple automatons blindly reacting to stimuli.
My priors include the idea that both animal intelligence is not that different from humans and also that humans tend to overly anthropomorphize animal cognition. The biggest misunderstandings of animal cognition are much like misunderstandings humans have of foreign cultures, often involving forms of mind projection fallacies where we assume other's values, motivations, priorities, and perceptions are more similar (or more different) than is justified.
I'm a bit confused by people in the comments entertaining the idea that priors should influence how we interpret the magnitude of the evidence, even though when I look at the Bayes' rule it seems to say that the magnitude of the update (how much you have to multiply the odds) is independent of what your prior was. I know it's not that simple because sometimes the evidence itself is noisy and needs interpretation "pre-processing" before plugging it to the equation, but this "pre-processing" step should use a different prior then the one we try to update. I'm not sure how exactly this "multi-stage Bayesian update rule" should work, and I was trying to describe my struggle in my https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/JtEBjbEZidruMBKc3/are-dogs-bad
I've had that thought as well. So far it doesn't look like dogs spontaneously use the buttons to communicate among themselves (they mostly don't have the opportunity though). Some of Bunny's neighbor dogs' owners got on the button craze as well, so maybe we'll see some of that.
I think the mama dog would still likely teach it to puppies as a way to communicate with humans, even if it's not used as a way to talk between them.
I'm not aware of any existing "dog culture" that is passed between generations, but I'm not aware of any reason it's impossible either.
I suppose wolf packs might teach the young adaptations relevant to local conditions, but it's not clear to me how to use that hypothetical evidence.
My dog does this unusual roundhouse butt attack when she's playing with other dogs. It's unusual enough that people comment on it.
I've definitely noticed other dogs start doing it too after playing with her a bunch.
There also SEEMS to be a thing where in e.g. Berkeley the dogs at the park play quietly. I wondered how they taught their dogs not to bark while playing, because this is NOT the case in midwest dog parks. But apparently it's "cultural". If the dogs don't bark at the dog park you frequent, your dog will also not bark.
Imitation seems like an important part of teaching/learning, and apes have famously high ability to imitate, and humans are the best imitators among the apes. This may put a limit on how difficult concepts a species can transfer to the next generation.
Humans love copying what others do, and that may be useful at learning habits that are not immediately useful, so the learning at the beginning is not rewarded by anything other than being intrinsically desirable.
Also, training animals is difficult; I probably couldn't teach a dog to communicate. How much would belonging to the same species help the dog to teach its puppies?
An interesting data point for putting a ceiling on an animal's ability to produce language is this lecture discussing various animals (mostly apes) learning American Sign Language (starting at ~1h18m).
My take-away is that some chimps may be capable of remembering and reproducing words, but not string them together meaningfully: word order is effectively random, length of sentence does not correlate with information content. The lecture discusses (at about 1:34:56) the turning point of the field when H. Terrace was unable to reproduce the generally optimistic findings, e.g. about Koko using "syntax", when teaching his own chimp American Sign Language and then published Why Koko Can't Talk.
If the above is correct, my prior would be for dogs to be at or below the level of chimps - which would still be an interesting finding. What the history of the field highlights, however, is that many humans really want animals to be able to speak AND humans are great at pattern matching meaning into arbitrarily strung together words, which decreases my confidence in anecdotal evidence without more rigorous studies.
I've updated the article to include a more in-depth explanation of the study design and philosophy instead of just two links (I suspect almost nobody clicked them). Also added responses to common criticism and titles and short explanations for video links (I suspect a lot of people didn't click on most of the videos). Also removed the revolution part.
If you've already read the article, I suggest you read the research and criticism parts under Bunny and watch the new Stella video I added, which is more representative of the kinds of videos that led me to watch the dog space more closely. All of the good Stella stuff is on Instagram, but not on YouTube.
If the folk wisdom of "pigs are smarter than dogs" is true, this suggests it should be possible to get a pig perspective on the pork industry. Could be a big deal for animal rights (but it's also highly likely that a pig/cow/etc taught how to say "please don't eat me" will be ignored or rationalized away like everything else).
It is commendable that OP put a lot of work into this post, but tbh it does seem like many claims are way too overconfident given the evidence. I fear the "specialists in field X are grossly incompetent" is a frequent bias on lw, which is why not many people have pointed out the problems with this post.
1) Animal researchers have engaged with these type of videos; that they are not in awe about it, could also mean that they do not find it impressive or novel. Here is a good summary. It did not take me long to find this, and this link (or similar ones) should not be the 81st comment.
2)Yes, doing research on elephants is impractical, but that has nothing to do with doing research on dogs.Many animal cognition researchers have dogs and are totally happy and willing to try to teach their dogs language in their free time.
3)There are lots of studies with insane amount of resources poured into them with the goal of teaching animals language. Take this study in the 60s where they tried to teach a dolphin language by filling an apartment with water, having the handler live with the dolphin, and giving him an occasional hand*** . (yes, you read that right)
4) Bunny appears to be a Poodle mix; given that poodles are known to be a very intelligent dog breed, it is at least conceivable that they learned some genuinely surprising things.
I am willing to accept bets that general consensus in 3 years will be that Bunny and the vast majority of dogs in such studies do not have an episodic memory which they can communicate like claimed in this post.
I am willing to accept bets that general consensus in 3 years will be that Bunny and the vast majority of dogs in such studies do not have an episodic memory which they can communicate like claimed in this post.
I am offering 2:1 odds in favour of the other side.
Are you still offering this bet? I'm interested.
To clarify, you mean not just that the consensus will be that such studies find no (strong) evidence for episodic memory, but that dogs (in such studies) do not have an episodic memory that they can communicate like claimed in the post at all?
And, can you clarify what you mean by "like claimed in this post"?
Fully agree on the bias part, although specialists being incompetent isn't a thread in my article? There's an entire aside about why some research doesn't get done, and incompetence isn't among the reasons.
I've read the Slate article you linked, and I think it's good. I don't see anything in there that I disagree with. The article is from 2019 when the amount of evidence (and importantly the number of people who successfully replicated it) was just one Instagram dog. Even back then in the article scientists are cautious but lukewarm and want a more rigorous study. Now we have a more rigorous study running.
All this stuff has been addressed in the comments and in the updated article. I'm quite adamant that misinterpreting dog output is the primary danger and I don't claim confidence in specific abilities, precisely because we need more study to determine what's real and what's confirmation bias/misinterpretation.
That wasn't a point about dog research, it was a point about dynamics of what kind of discoveries and research gets made more often.
"in the 60s" for social/cognitive/psychology-adjacent research has to be a bit like "in mice" for medicine. Either way, people try to do something and fail, 60 years later someone comes up with an approach that works. That's a completely normal story.
I thought about taking you up on the bet at 3:1 but I don't like the "vast majority" part. I think it's too much work to specify the rules precisely enough and I've spent enough time on this already.
The anxiety reduction was more improvised to surprising needs rather than thought to have a cognitive payload by itself and thought off beforehand. It is a notable thing about it but not excatly a resource that measures effort extent.
From my experience, dog owners and people in general tend to see human-like patterns in dog behavior even when more simple explanations ("looking at the world through dog's eyes") have better predictive power.
As many dog owners would tell, dogs learn how to show their needs (staring at a door to be let outside, bringing a leash when they want to go for a walk, or a toy when they want to play, etc.). I find it pretty impressive that Bunny learned to communicate her needs through the board, but from what I've seen, I don't really think there's much evidence for some of the complex behaviour this post and the owner suggested there is.
I think that she learned which words or parts of the board to use in specific contexts (questions about time and place, mirror) but I don't it shows she can tell time or recognize herself in the mirror (AFAIK, no dog can do that). On the other hand, I think that she can somewhat describe the world around her and I'm really curious what is the extent of this ability.
A lot of the behavior from the videos (eg. the negotiations) reminds me of a dog training technique when you let the dog try things and reward them when they do the thing you want. Dogs can get pretty creative this way and can generate novel behavior (which can be "shaped" into a more complex one). This way, Bunny learns sequences of words that generate amusement or other positive feedback (eg. the poop conversation).
Also, Bunny and her owner have a very strong bond and there are definitely many nonverbal cues happening.
That being said, I updated my model of dog cognitive skills and how can it be tested. I'm most excited about testing the ability to generalize and I expect I'll look into it further.
This raises the natural question: what if you gave an ape the buttons, and taught it from childhood, and put parent-level effort into it, not "70s research”-level effort? Perhaps the answer would surprise us.
The bonobo Kanzi had something very similar ("lexigrams"). And his sister Panbanisha was born in the research center and grew up with the lexigrams. As far as I'm aware, the research never seemed to generate extreme attention, so probably the learnings remained somewhat limited?
Bunny is quite obsessed over her bowel movements (how Freudian) and about her owners' poop cycle.
As a youtube comment on the video points out, maybe the dog is just trying to be polite by imitating the conversation topic of its family. People probably ask their dog all the time about whether the dog needs or wants to go potty.
I wasn't aware of this and it indeed looks very similar! Sue Savage-Rumbaugh who started the work did appear on Oprah and gave a TED talk, so she generated some attention. And in the Oprah clip she says she's living and sleeping with the bonobos 95% of the time, and is raising a small one (Teco) being exposed to lexigrams from birth. That's about as close to "parent-level effort" as one can get!
Unfortunately in 2012 she had a spat with her bonobo center over ethical concerns, which included a shadowy group of whistleblowers named "Bonobo 12" among other drama. According to her wiki she has left the center and is "embroiled in several legal battles" with her former employer. Their current research page provides scant information on what they're doing these days. They're pretty active on Facebook though, but it's mostly begging for donations and asking people to buy stuff of their amazon wishlist, with no mention of any research. I think they're struggling to stay afloat.
I can't find any videos of Teco using the lexigrams, but here are some of the other apes:
I do not believe that there has ever been an example anywhere of a nonhuman expressing an opinion or asking a question. It would be wonderful if animals could say things about the world, as opposed to just signaling a direct emotional state or need. But they just don’t.
It's notable that Bunny readily asks "where" and "why" and comments on things happening. But maybe the bonobos also did that, we don't have enough material to tell, I only found this video where the monkey asks where the balloon is.
And here's a Slate article with a deeper look at all the ape drama. The article isn't too horrible, but it's very much in Slate style.
Continuing the previous examples, I think there are old experiments to get animals to talk which are maybe why research into this area has been less than one might expect for a while (which are different from the examples given in the OP).
By induction: it's obvious that you can teach most dogs to press a button for "Food", "Outside", "Pets", "Play", and they won't need to rely on clever hansian subtle cues from you to express desire for food, they're already doing it just with a different modality.
For more abstract concepts like mad, happy or concerned or the ever-popular "love you", you're supposed to model those buttons when the dog is feeling these things, so you need to understand your pet very well, and it's easy to delude yourself into thinking you understand when you don't.
So the danger is over-interpreting their output. Was this sentence intended or just random babbling? Does the dog understand the word differently from what it means in English? E.g. "bye" seems to become a verb meaning "leaving", "love you" is used for affection but obviously doesn't reflect deep understanding of the human concept of love. And every pet is going to develop its own idiolect with the owner, further complicating things. Alexis seems to be very aware of those issues and UCSD study claims (or hopes?) to have hundreds of participants, the large scale should help separate signal from noise.
There's also some conflict of interest with Leo Trottier who has sites selling the buttons, pet games and learning material while being part of the research team.
There are some real concerns, but I still think there's something real here.
So the danger is over-interpreting their output. Was this sentence intended or just random babbling? Does the dog understand the word differently from what it means in English? E.g. "bye" seems to become a verb meaning "leaving", "love you" is used for affection but obviously doesn't reflect deep understanding of the human concept of love.
Interestingly, there's an argument that human infants also learn language by their parents over-interpreting their input, with the infants then adopting those interpretations as true. So one could argue that even if over-interpretation happens with dogs, that only makes it a process similar to human language learning, with the parent/child and owner/dog creating a shared language game.
Our first type of example comes from our own data concerning Zulu infants of between three and four months of age interacting with their mothers, and suggests an answer to this question. [...]
As noted above, there are times when a caregiver will want an infant to fall silent, or in isiZulu to 'thula'. Zulu children are traditionally expected to be less socially active than contemporary Western children, to initiate fewer interactions, and, crucially, to show a respectful attitude towards adults. An early manifestation of this is in behaviours where a mother attempts to make an infant keep quiet, sometimes saying 'thula' ('quiet'), 'njega' ('no'), while simultaneously gesturing, moving towards or away from the infant, and reacting to details of the infants own behaviour (see Cowley et al., in press).
At these times the mother regularly leans forward, so that more of the infants visual field is taken up by her face and palms. New vocalisations, and movements or re-orientations of gaze by the infant, are often 'nipped in the bud' by dominating vocalisations (sometimes showing prosodic properties indicative of disapproval, comforting, attention and/or arousal towards the mother herself) from the mother, sometimes accompanied by increasingly emphatic hand-waving, and even closer crowding of the infants visual field. [...]
With high regularity, and within relatively little time, the particular infant often does 'thula', at which point it is generally rewarded with smiling, gentle touching, and other comforting.
At this stage there is no reason to believe that the infant knows what 'thula' or 'njega' means, or even that it could reliably re-identify the words, let alone produce or contemplate them, so it is extremely unlikely that the word-based aspects of maternal utterance-activity provide labels for the infant. We are considering infants before the stage linguists call 'babbling', let alone recognisable speech production. It is not even necessary to suppose that it 'knows' that it is supposed to be quiet when behaved at in the ways we have just described. We know that the mother wants the child to be quiet, that this expresses itself in behaviour by the mother, and that the infant comes to be quiet.
If we examine the mothers behaviour, though, we can make sense of it. She ensures that it is difficult for the infant to attend to anything else by crowding its visual field. She rejects active or new behaviours on its part by cutting off its vocalisations and movements with dominating signals of her own. She largely restricts approval signals, including relaxing the crowding, and reducing the magnitude of her gesturing, as well as expressing comfort through vocalisation, facial signalling and touch, to moments when the infant begins to quieten down. Its not particularly surprising, then, that it does quieten down.
The mothers behaviour includes salient, repeated, features which are apt for learning. Her patterns of hand gesturing, for example, could at the outset be iconic of the whole episode including her behaviour and the infants becoming quiet, but, when repetition allows the gesture to be individuated and recognised in its own right, go on to become an indexical cue that quietness should follow. The infants responses then become indexical for the mother of the degree to which the child is co-operative, well-behaved, or, more plainly, 'good'. Caregiver descriptions of infant behaviour at these times, manifest either in their explicit vocalisations to the child, including references to being 'good', or references to possible disciplinary sanctions such as 'kuza baba manje' ('wheres your father now?') or, in interviews following the videotaping, show that infant behaviour even at this early age is being classified in line with culturally specific expectations of good and bad behaviour. And a crucial part of what makes for a 'good' child is responding in ways sensitive to what caregiver behaviour is actually about, strikingly in controlling episodes such as the one just described, which make possible the earliest ascriptions of 'obedience', 'cooperativeness' and so forth.
These ascriptions are over-interpretations. They are, though, necessary overinterpretations, in so far as they motivate caregivers to imbue their own behaviour with regularities manifest regularities in their own behaviour which are then available as structure in the interactional environment for (learning by) the infant. A further episode from our data, in this case concerning a child of around four months, illustrates this point about over-interpretation. In it an infant repeatedly vocalises in ways which to its mother, at least, are suggestive of its saying 'up'. Each time she says 'up'?, or 'you want to go up'? and after a few repetitions she lifts the child. Prior to the lifting, there is little evidence that the child actually wants to be lifted, or that it has its attention focussed on anything in particular, except perhaps its own experiments in vocal control. When it is lifted, though, it beams widely. Whatever it did want, if anything, it is now, we suggest, one step closer to figuring out how to behave in ways that lead to its being lifted up.
Still on the subject of lifting, consider the common gesture made around the eighth month by infants who want to be picked up (that is, who subsequently smile or otherwise show approval when they are picked up following such a gesture): a simultaneous raising, or flapping, of both arms (see Lock, 1991). This gesture is not simply copied from common adult behaviours. In the terms we are using here it is partly iconic, in virtue of being a common posture of infants while they are in fact being held up, and partly indexical, in virtue of being able to stand on its own as an indicator of 'being up', as well as being symbolically interpretable as an invitation to lift, or a request to be lifted. Such gestures are, importantly, serviceable label candidates, in virtue of being amenable to disembedding from behaviour, and eventually coming under deliberate control. An infant need not want to be lifted the first few times it makes such a gesture, it has only to be able to notice that the gesture tends to be followed by liftings.
If and when such learning takes place, it does so in the affectively charged environment we have briefly described. We want to bring discussion of the current example to a close by suggesting a way in which these interactions should be regarded as a further example of how minds can be extended through action. Clark and Chalmers suggestion is that paradigmatically mental states and processes can be realised by structures and resources external to the brain. The world beyond the skull of any individual includes, of course, the skulls and brains of others. If active externalism motivates the recognition of a cognitive prosthesis such as a filofax as part of what realises a mind, then the embodied brain of another can also play that role. Here, then, is our suggestion: that at times interacting caregiver-infant dyads are neither one individual nor two, but somewhere in between. At the risk of sounding sensational and un-PC at the same time, infant brains can be temporarily colonised by caregivers so as to accelerate learning processes. [...]
The instances of indexical learning we describe also permit the beginning of a kind of 'semiotic arms race' between infants and caregivers. Once an infant has learned, for example, that the arms-up gesture can lead to being lifted, it is possible for 'requests' (that is, behaviours taken as requests by others, no matter how they are to the infant) to be lifted to be acted on, or to be refused. Prior to the construction and learning of the indexical relationship, this was impossible––a parent would lift a child when the parent wanted to, or thought it would serve some end. Once it has been learned, 'requests' can be differentially responded to, depending on their situation in patterns of interaction extending through time. Personal and cultural contingencies about infants and parents will codetermine what patterns are formed, and whether, for example, requested lifting is more likely after relatively quick acquiescence to silencing behaviour, or less likely in the period following failure to attend to objects or events in which a caregiver attempted to arouse interest.
I tend towards the 'Clever Hans' hypothesis on this one too. Human language skills are much more complex due to our neurology, as are our cognitive abilities. That doesn't mean dogs aren't communicating at some rudimentary level, as they are at least able to recognize patterns and determine likely outcomes, even if they are at a more reflexive instead of reflective level. Hot dogs for example satisfy reflexive hunger based desires, instead of reflective philosophical desires to be seen as intelligent.
Of course one reason more of this type of research isn't done in academia anymore is that no one wants to shell out tons of money to disprove a lot of 'crazy' hypothesis. Proving things tends to be seen as more productive, especially in the short term, although the long term implications of disproving multiple hypothesis is that it tends to point one in a better direction for particular areas of potential for truth.
At any level, money is always a polarizing factor in the consideration of 'scientific validity', whether it's selling buttons to 'Dog Parents' or selling data processing clout to Corporations and their beneficiaries. Just making something more convenient to study though doesn't necessarily make the overall scientific community better I think, as it will just provide more resources to easier topics to research, not necessarily more important topics.
In this case though, I think animal cognition is important to study. In a Cohumane sense, it can provide clarity on issues like the ethical use of animals for food sources, experimental subjects, and issues regarding the destruction of the natural environment and extinction of animal and plant life. Is animal suffering even a thing first of all (of course, but does that extend further to insects or plant life?) and if it is a thing, what kinds of considerations are there for our past and present treatment of these life forms as 'resources' akin to minerals we mine out of the ground ( or for that matter, for 'human resources' and our treatment as such?)
When you say "Clever Hans" are you talking specifically about the handler's subconscious cues determining what the dog does? I think that's very unlikely, in a lot of interactions you can see an exchange where the pet is supposed to make a decision - the owner doesn't know the right answer! When Bunny presses "ouch stranger paw" to indicate a splinter in her paw, how was the owner supposed to "influence" that, without even being aware of the splinter? Some interactions are owner asking a question with a defined right answer, but there's clearly much more than that happening.
they are at least able to recognize patterns and determine likely outcomes, even if they are at a more reflexive instead of reflective level. Hot dogs for example satisfy reflexive hunger based desires, instead of reflective philosophical desires to be seen as intelligent.
I agree that on the continuum animals are much further towards reflexive, but I just want to point out that most people inhabit reflexive states very often. Maybe it's normie bias cropping up :D But most people aren't obsessively reflective. A lot of self-reflective smart people have trouble understanding what it's like to be someone far outside that cluster because of failure of imagination: there really is barely any reflection and associations are this loose and there simply isn't anything deeper, there's no underlying epistemological mistake to "fix". My point being, being reflective doesn't preclude language ability as much as you think.
Let's look at feral children again. Do you think they're very reflective? Language may be a tool that is required for development of ability to be reflective, and if that is the case we will see examples of dogs starting to show a degree of reflectiveness. Arguably, we've seen that already with Bunny asking questions about what/why "dog". And yes, it's a clickbaity video, and your (and mine) immediate reaction would be "faake", but I think all of this stuff is done in good faith, and not faked or "creatively edited".
Just making something more convenient to study though doesn't necessarily make the overall scientific community better I think, as it will just provide more resources to easier topics to research, not necessarily more important topics.
I also mentioned Clever Hans, and you made a good point in response. Rather than sound like I am motte-and-baileying you, I will say that I was using "Clever Hans" irresponsibly imprecisely as a stand-in for more issues than were present in the Clever Hans case.
I've updated in the direction of "I'll eventually need to reconsider my relationship with my dog" but still expect a lot of these research threads to come apart through a combination of
Subconscious cues from trainers - true Clever Hans effects (dogs are super clued in to us thanks to selection pressure, in ways we don't naturally detect)
Experiment design that has obvious holes in it (at first)
Experiment design that has subtle holes in it (once the easy problems are dealt with)
Alternative explanations, of experimentally established hole-free results, from professional scientists (once the field becomes large enough to attract widespread academic attention). Like, yes, you unambiguously showed experimental result x, which you attributed to p, which would indeed explain x, but q is an equally plausible explanation which your experiment does not differentiate against.
This is based on a model of lay science that tends to show these patterns, because lay science tends to be a "labor of love" that makes it harder to detect one's own biases.
Specifically on the volunteer-based projects, I expect additional issues with:
Selection effects in the experimentees (only unusually smart/perceptive/responsive/whatever dogs will make it past the first round of training; the others will have owners who get bored from lack of results and quit)
Selection effects in the experimenters (only certain types of people will even be aware of this research; only exceptionally talented dog trainers will stick with the program because training intelligent dogs takes so much f-ing patience, much less training dumber dogs)
There may be lines of research that conclusively establish some surprising things about dog intelligence, and I look forward to any such surprisal. But I'm going to wait until the dust settles more--and until there are more published papers because I have to work a lot harder to understand technical information conveyed by video--before engaging with the research.
When you say "Clever Hans" are you talking specifically about the handler's subconscious cues determining what the dog does?
I'm thinking of it more as a variation on that idea. I think it's possible that in the button case, the buttons could be stand ins for cues from an owner. Simply training with the buttons over time would modify a dogs behavior based solely on the presence or absence of the button. Work the toys in, and you're simply training a dog to respond 'correctly' or 'incorrectly' in the presence or absence of a 'thing' associated with a particular sound and visual cue.
I think of lion tamers and other animals who have been trained to do tricks, like unicycling bears, and dolphins and orcas that are trained to jump through hoops when I see these types of things. Circuses things. It would be cool if dogs really could understand human language to the point where they could communicate back, but I just don't believe it's the case. Our brains developed complex areas devoted specifically to making and decoding speech, which depend on specific structures of our throats. These are all things all animals except for humans lack.
I agree that on the continuum animals are much further towards reflexive, but I just want to point out that most people inhabit reflexive states very often.
I sometimes think modern life is just learning to inhibit our reflexive actions, which are based on our reflexive states. We do this inhibiting not only because of social training (like dog training or obedience school, what to do, not why to do it), but also because of our reflective ability (why or why not to do it), which allows us to (theoretically) do things like putting off getting rewards now for more rewards in the future, or to develop interpersonal relationship skills to try to work with people we reflexively dislike.
These are things dogs can't do, as they involve ability to think abstractly about concepts like time and etiquette. Dogs can be trained to inhibit their reflexive behavior, and 'act' a particular way (don't bite, don't bark, come to me when I make particular sound or give a particular gesture, or press this button when they hear a particular sound) but not to reflect on why it's important to do so.
If they can be taught to reflect like this, I have some doggy pipes and smoking jackets with a monocle and leather reading chair made specifically for dogs to be able to sit and read the paper (after they fetch it) to sell you. :)
Another great video that's also has no room for Clever Hans. The cat owner repeatidly asks the cat whether she wants food play and the cat says first "no" then "all done" and then "later" as the owner repeats the question with the idea that the cat first pressed "no" when the cat meant "yes".
I thought that "outside catnip" was an alternate activity so that would be a no to a different question, so that is only 2 nos to "food play". The human also seems insistent and for some reason I attribute uncomfortableness to the cat, so I see "later" as a "yes but later" compromise on being directed to food play.
I think the cat is reacting to the opinion of the human. You might be mostly concerned that the main driving force would be "which button I am supposed to press?". But on the repeat the cat is much slower to say no. It feels like saying "no" is sligthly punished. And the human is not exactly hiding their enthusiasm about directing food play activity. I read into that a balancing between internal desires vs social expectations which would be even more complex than the "simpler effects can explain nothing interedsting going on" approach but this is not strongly screening off non-concious suggestions from the human. The human is very visble to the cat, the cat is very interested in the physicality of the human and we don't see footage of the human to evaluate what signals they might be beaming or not.
Sure I think the humanis not comanding the presses of buttons but advdertisers target kids because they can induce money spending on toys and they don't command their parents wallets either. It's like a kid saying "Are we going to McDonalds?" (cat feeling something "but I am feeling so greasy already, let's not"), its not disambiguation, its negotation/influence.
Another imagination pattern would be when police ask you 10x times whether you did the crime that it might elict a false confession. Having a pattern of "Do you want to do it?", "No", "Wrong. Do you want to do it?","no", "Wrong. Do you want to do it", "Maybe", is not an expression of enthusiastic consent. I felt I coudl pretty rapid fire come up with these scenarios, they are fairly different and their applicability is not clearly absurd so "very hard to imagine" is not how I experience the interpretation challenge level.
The analog starts to get a little far but I can imagine atleast two scenarios where atleast half of the interaction doesn't consist of words.
First one. Somebody hitting their TV until it starts working again. The TV sure as hell doesn't know what the interaction is about. As hitter projecting anger into the situation is a common cognitive fallacy, but low percentage of the time is is a way to wiggle out of the error state of not having a working TV.
Another would be an exchange like "that *itch", "ermh...","witch", "ermh","girl","erhm", "woman". Is the one doing discouragement on the connotation requesdting a reformulation or neutrally rejecting a wrong answer? It doesn't involve an established word and it can involve stuff like eye rolling and stuff that is harder to delineate into deiscrete chuncks. This would be a instance of clever hans as the formulator doesn't need to know what PC-filter is appropriate for the situation.
In the following video the dog owner tells Bunny that another dog is "home". Given our human language it's clear the dog owner meant that it's at the home of the other dog owner but given that home has always meant the dog owners home the dog seems to understand that the other dog is around.
You wouldn't get such misunderstanding with the clever hans effect.
I am interested in from where such impression are formed from.
To my eye the dog doing the looking and looking back is a form pointing at the house and the dog is expecting to walk around the house. The human is not having any of the walking. This combined with expressing verbal uncertainty makes the dog think that a miscommunication took place.
Why is the dog expecting a a walk? Because the dog knows that the human knows that selena is exciting. The human being disintresed to walk around is in conflict with the theory of exciting things to be found around.
To me it is not super clear what makes a look "pointy" and which is only to have a better visual access to something. The video being sped up at the portion suggests that to the editors eye "nothing is happening" communication wise.
The clarificatino of "no selena to be found" suggests that outside and home mean more things like "elsewhere" and "here". And this is an example where the dog is setting up the definition goal posts and the human is following that lead. Here the interaction pattern is "express confusion/doubt","provide suggestion","get on board suggestion". "home", "outside" could have aspects of "inside" vs "outside" and it would be curious whether "elsewhere inside" is ever relevant to the dogs life.
One interesting feature of the interaction is that the dog is first going to look for Selina and only confused when Bunny didn't find her. That suggests that their mental model of what's going on around him isn't pretty good.
To the extend that elsewhere inside is relevant I expect it's relevant when the dog isn't at their home and thus doesn't have any access to any buttons to express themselves.
So this is hearsay, but a zoologist friend of mine has a zoologist friend of hers :) and that person has spent a while observing cows. She says cows are "smart" but kind of live in a different timescale than we do, a "longer" one. I have no idea what this means for any particular cow, yet what I find interesting is the notion of different timescales and how it affects ethology research.
OTOH, I have geese, and I do wonder about that Hans thing. Geese are 1) super fun, 2) variable in aggression, maternal instinct strength, shyness etc. Sure they can't communicate many things, but.
They do expect me to behave predictably, to cooperate or to interfere. And I view this mutual expectation as a solid sign of smartness. For example, when I stand in their way, they would politely wait for me to pass, making it clear what they intend to do. They know they shouldn't get into the vegetable garden, so they do not do it when they could be seen. One goose tugs open the little door to their house to get back on her eggs when she thinks she has us fooled. (Unfortunately, we have to shoo her away from them to get her to eat and drink. But it's alright now, she became Mother Goose to this year's crop and does go out to the pasture. We can mostly leave the little ones under her supervision.) My husband fixed some solar-powered streetlights on trees, to play football with the kid in the evening. The lights are triggered by movement. So now the birds take advantage of them. If we don't lock them in their enclosure, they steal out to enjoy their nighttime swims and grazes (we call it "geese are clubbing again".)
And yes, I am reading things into things, I do know that)
Different timescale is an important part of it. In a lot of those pet buttons videos you can see that the pet takes an uncomfortably long time to respond. They would often go away from the board to "pace" and then after a solid minute come back to finally respond. In Bunny videos this part gets fast-forwarded to make it watchable, in Billi vids you can see the cat go away and sit with her tail swishing, you can practically see the gears turning in her head.
I still appreciate this post for getting me to think about the question "how much language can dogs learn?". I also still find the evidence pretty sus, and mostly tantalizing in the form of "man I wish there were more/better experiments like this."
BUT, what feels (probably?) less sus to me is JenniferRM's comment about the dog Chaser, who learned explicit nouns and verbs. This is more believable to me, and seems to have had more of a scientific setup. (Ideally I'd like to spend this review-time spot-checking that the paper seems reasonable, alas, in the grand scheme of thing this post doesn't seem quite worth my time at the moment. But I'd appreciate if someone else dug into it more)
This is only enough to get me to give the post a vote of 1. I appreciate it for being one of the most out-of-left-field things I didn't expect to bump into on LW, but it's not serious progress on it's own.
This post has successfully stuck around in my mind for two years now! In particular, it's made me explicitly aware of the possibility of flinching away from observations because they're normie-tribe-coded.
I think I deny the evidence on most of the cases of dogs generating complex English claims. But it was epistemically healthy for that model anomaly to be rubbed in my face, rather than filter-bubbled away plus flinched away from and ignored.
The owners over-interpret and anthropomorphize the button "speech"
The is the biggest danger in my opinion. Hopefully with rigorous analysis during the study and specifically set up experiments we'll be able to understand better at what level of communication the dogs actually are.
I think this is most of what's going on here. I'd guess that the owners have in fact taught their animals some new words and associations, but that they're way over-interpreting what the dogs are "saying".
I don't think this question has been asked before here but I'm wondering about the effect of the age of the dog at the start of the training.
IIRC feral children that learn to communicate as adults have missed their critical period for grammatical expression. In effect there oral skills are akin to "dog speak". Maybe if the dog starts at age 0 it can lead to more complex word associations. If indeed there is a "grammatical critical period" for dogs even though dogs don't ever have to use grammars in their natural state that would be a breakthrough in my opinion.
it would be very interesting to see the impact of missing a sense from birth on this. For example, if a dog is born blind and taught at age 0 to communicate with this kind of device, maybe it could sort of rewire the unused parts of his brain to expand even more his speaking skills. Of course the device would have to be enhanced for blind dogs, maybe using braille bumps on top of the buttons, or scented buttons or by making the buttons emit a very faint tone specific to each button.
great post, two points of disagreement that are worth mentioning
Exploring the full ability of dogs and cats to communicate isn't so much impractical to do in academia; it just isn't very theoretically interesting. We know animals can do operant conditioning (we've known for over 100 years probably), but we also know they struggle with complex syntax. I guess there's a lot of uncertainty in the middle, so I'm low confidence about this. But generally to publish a high impact paper about dog or cat communication you'd have to show they can do more than "conditioning", that they understand syntax in some way. That's probably pretty hard; maybe you can do it, but do you want to stake your career on it?
That brings me to my second point...is it more than operant conditioning? Some of the videos show the animals pressing multiple buttons. But Billy the Cat's videos show his trainer teaching his button sequences. I'm not a language expert, but to demonstrate syntax understanding, you have to do more than show he can learn sequences of button presses he was taught verbatim. At a minimum there'd need to be evidence he can form novel sentences by combining buttons in apparently-intentional ways that could only be put together by generalizing from some syntax rules. Maaaybe @Adele Lopez [LW · GW] 's observation that Bunny seems to reverse her owner's word order might be appropriate evidence. But if she's been reinforced for her own arbitrarily chosen word order in the past, she might develop it without really appreciating rules of syntax per se. In fact, a hallmark of learning language is that you can learn syntax correctly.
Anyone have any particular intuition for whether a dog would be likely to be able to learn to use a device that combined phonemes as its basic constituent parts, rather than entire words?
I'm working on a device that affords this possibility. I have a functional prototype that is mouth-held and -operated; it uses a pressure sensor (measuring bite) and gyro/accelerometer to produce (at the moment) a limited selection of vowels and consonants; they can be varied by moving the head around and biting down.
My inspiration is these button boards together with the intuition that some of the main obstacles to language production are the physical machinery, and also a fast feedback loop.
I do not have custody of a dog and have had limited opportunities to test thus far.
When it comes to teaching the meaning of the words with the buttons it seems much easier to introduce new words and the dog can easily see it when the button is pushed. It's going to be much harder for the dog to learn sounds on their own.
It might be worth writing out a plan of how you think all the individual subskills can be taught.
Note: if you convert this post from markdown to LessWrong Docs (available at the top of the edit-post-page), and that you paste the youtube-links into the editor, they will automatically turn into embedded links, which you might find nicer. (You can experiment with it and see if you like it without committing to re-publish the post)
If this turns out to be basically true, then what about wild wolves? I think there is a strong case that the capacity for this sort of communication to have been bred into domestic dogs as a result of humans selecting for e.g. better overall intelligence and ability to understand human commands.
Another option is that wild wolf packs have the capacity for this sort of communication but don't (unless we've simply not noticed it) and this seems much less likely to me, for the sole reason that being able to communicate in this way would give a very large advantage to wild wolves. It would be odd if they kept the cognitive machinery for this around (and using up resources for the rest of their bodies) without making use of it.
There is a final option that developing a language is like discovering a technology, and once a language exists it is much easier to teach it to others than it originally was to develop the language. This would be very interesting to investigate, perhaps languages are like a sort of software on the brain, which are able to convert various processes (association learning, pattern recognition, episodic memory) into something more structured which allows for easier reasoning. This is getting very Sapir-Whorf hypothesis-ey and as someone who is not a linguist or anthropologist I can't really say if this is even reasonable or not.
As an aside the second option reminds me of the experiments to try and teach chimpanzees to use human sign language. (which were considered at the time to be a great success but were less than stellar) Chimpanzees in the wild have a very rudimentary form of sign language but have not developed it into something like a human language despite the potential advantages (either in social conflicts or in hunting/gathering food etc.). This to me suggests that chimpanzees probably don't have the capacity for more complex sign languages than they already have.
It would be odd if they kept the cognitive machinery for this around (and using up resources for the rest of their bodies) without making use of it.
Humans who learn to drive cars have amazing cognitive machinery for it despite not being evolved for it. The human brain being able to edit the sense of time when driving cars seems pretty amazing. Similar things go for reading.
The ability of brains to learn is very general.
Given that the buttons work for autistic humans who are not capable of learning sign language learning to use them is likely less cognitively demanding then learning to use sign language.
I more meant "keeping around cognitive machinery which is capable of this" without making use of it. Given that wild wolves use (relatively) simple hunting strategies which do not seem to rely on much communication, there doesn't seem to be much need to have a brain capable of communicating relatively abstract thoughts. That doesn't seem to affect your core argument though
Good point about autistic humans who can't learn sign language though, I hadn't considered that. I guess my model of autism was more like:
"Autism affects the brain in lots of different ways which is able to knock out specific abilities (like speech) without knocking out other abilities (like the capability to have and communicate complex thoughts, which would not have evolved in an animal without speech)"
than drawing on some amount of general purpose computing behind each one. I haven't studied autism enough to know if this is correct.
Either you follow the rules or break the rules, there is no "rudimentary syntax". They are brute-forcing the syntactic phase of the communication and they cannot generalize for the rules if it's not directly part of their current experience (pain,punish,reward etc). But almost every mammalian can reference to the world, hence the morphemes are almost there, but not quite.
I was surprised not to find K'eyush as an example. For anybody wondering about interprtations one can compare with his buddy Sherpa. Sherpa is clearly alot behind K'eyush but does have a notion on when it is her turn to "speak" althought with sherpa it doesn't seem to have specified content.
The way the owner subtitles the videos also is a interesting reference point. They are half-littered with jokes which are no an honest interpretation form the handler but also do have genuine disambiguation. Perhaps importantly by following the videos one develops a sense of how "grounded" the interpretaions are and maybe having that ability to read this specific dog stick on a little as well. And it was notable that K'eyush could make a phone app designed for humans to recognise some of the words. In order to effectively reward for trying to express an concept might require leniency in that also partially articulated things count. That is for communication purposes the listener being able to distinguish between possible messages is key. This bar is more naturally and easier met when the communication is allowed happen within "natural expression range".
I oo think that the main obstacle for bird and dogs is not beig included in the culture. Not having your kids attend the level of primary school upbringing is a form of abuse in many places.
It might be that the way of doing objectively recognisable resulst are partly in conflict in bringing out the most potentail fromt he test subject. Real attentive caretakers will develop a private language and are sensitive to focus on part of the speech that the taarget gets. Doing this in a way that would follow "test protocol" could be very hard. That is IQ test are okayish at establishing whether something is intelligent or not but not that good at teaching or proving how much a subject might be capable off.
I've checked him out, this kind of animal "speaking" always seemed like just a fun party trick, you can read anything into dog vocalizations. I expected nothing there, but in this clip (and only at 1:15) I can see him actually trying to mimic speech. But the rest is just reading on tea leaves. Like, there's no chance in hell that the dog would know the word "werewolf" and know to use it in context as happens later in the video.
Real attentive caretakers will develop a private language and are sensitive to focus on part of the speech that the target gets. Doing this in a way that would follow "test protocol" could be very hard.
I can totally buy that the owner and the dog developed a private language of barks and whines loosely based on English. And yet dogs' vocal cords and mouth are not made for producing human speech, while their paws are quite good at pressing buttons. If you spend all your time trying to make your dog actually vocalize English, you'll never progress to the interesting stuff, and you'll delude yourself into reading whatever you want into the sounds. I think that's a dead-end as far as animal language research is concerned.
I too think that the main obstacle for bird and dogs is not being included in the culture. Not having your kids attend the level of primary school upbringing is a form of abuse in many places.
The human equivalent of not being included in the culture is not homeschooling, it's growing feral being raised by wolves. And pets are surrounded by plenty of language. It only starts looking more interesting than blind pattern matching when you give them tools to actually use language instead of listening passively.
I understand that when a clear interpretaion is not super handy it is tempting to give up on it. However human mother will babble with their babies, they don't deem their children incapable of speech if they don't speak like they do.
Siris tea leaf reading is not partial to dogs.
There is also the mirror effect that because the buttons give them "perfect" vocalization there can be temptation that they mean more stuff with them.
Making a dog pronounce English at a human level seems impossible but that is why the barks and whines. There are regional human accent with humans with native languages have certain dialects in english. These can already hinder comprehension so atleast similar if not greater patience should be extended to "dog english".
If it could be clearly established to which word each dog sound corresponds then the vocals would be as good as buttons. It is proper for a trainer to treat the distinguishable sounds as proper dialogue lines. Part of the buttons is that it makes the human confident that word was meant (human has less chance to think it is a meaningless wiff and has more pressure to treat it as intentional communication)
I did mean that homeschooling would be an adequate substitute but there is a diffrence of keeping your children sensory depirvation chamber in a cellar and giving a competent homeschooling. The expectations on what dogs can do and I tried to get afforded to do is very limited. We don't diagnose people with dyslexia if they have never been introduced to the alphabeth (I guess it has forms that manifest that don't depend on symbols, point is shortcomings need a baseline to stand out). The pets are around language ubt are they actually participating in the language games, is management of things that matter to them done throught language? People do not babble with their dogs and in that they are on uneven ground with babies.
Sure the dog understand some words, better but hr can sometimes hold coversation to the point that he can participate in an argument. Even if doing vocals "ruins" it somehow the burden of what is enough of a demonstration of "getting it" with buttons. That is in a "problem of other minds" kind of level problem of why we don't attribute humans to be "merely" tea leaf reading when we are communicating (and some would probably argue that we actually communicate much less than we think we do).
This is partly why the difference between Sherpa and K'eyush is interesting. Sherpa actually really on board with the content but to an untrained ear it seems very similar.