Tuesday 12 July 2016

Giving animals a voice – computer software that could tell us what they are thinking

The project could help us understand what animals are thinking and feeling
The project could help us understand what animals are thinking and feeling

This project has the potential to speed up the process of behavioural analysis and increase the objectivity and accuracy of recording behaviour.
Dr Carol Hall, Nottingham Trent University

Nottingham Trent University is collaborating on an interdisciplinary animal-computer interaction research project which could help us understand what animals are thinking and feeling.

Dr Steve North, a research fellow in the Mixed Reality Laboratory (MRL) at The University of Nottingham, is developing a Horse Automated Behaviour Identification Tool (HABIT) – new animal-computer interaction software. The aim is to identify horse behaviour from unconstrained (amateur) video so we humans can interpret those reactions and understand why they are happening.

The research is being carried out in collaboration with Dr Mandy Roshier, an expert in anatomy and behaviour at the University of Nottingham's School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, Dr Carol Hall, an expert in equitation science at Nottingham Trent University and Dr Clara Mancini, a senior lecturer in computer interaction design at the Open University.

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is already well established. The emerging scientific discipline of animal-computer interaction (ACI) looks at the relationship between animals and technology.

By bringing together experts in animal computer interaction, equitation science, ethology, animal behaviour and biomedical engineering, the aim of HABIT is to develop a software programme that will automatically identify the behaviour horses are exhibiting and tell us whether the horse is stressed, sick or suffering.

It could be used on farms, at home on our own animals, in zoos and in veterinary practices.

Dr North received funding from the MRL in the School of Computer Science for an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) exploratory project to develop his ideas and bring together an interdisciplinary team of experts.

He said: "Horses and all nonhuman animals are entitled to interaction technologies that enrich rather than exploit. Anthropocentrism limits our understanding of human interaction in a multispecies world and currently there isn't any software that can reliably analyse video footage and log what behaviours it sees and when. We hope HABIT will also be able to assess how animals react to new surroundings."

Dr Mancini, who heads the Animal Computer Interaction Laboratory at the Open University, said: "We are coming to a point where technology is so widespread in society that animals are becoming exposed to it and interacting with it. However, we are still in the very early stages of developing technology that can interact with them in a user-centered way."

Dr North's recent paper - 'Do androids dream of electric steeds? The allure of horse-computer interaction' – was published in the academic journal Interactions in March this year. A further article is due to be published in Interactions this month.

Dr Hall and Dr Roshier have just published an article which considers the challenges involved in measuring and interpreting animal behaviour. 'Getting the Measure of Behaviour – is seeing believing?' was written for a special section on ACI in the July-August edition of Interactions.

Dr Hall is based at Nottingham Trent University's School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences at the Brackenhurst campus. Her research focuses on the behaviour and welfare of horses, in particular ridden horses. She is a member of the International Society for Equitation Science, a director on the board of the National Equine Welfare Council, and is a qualified riding instructor (British Horse Society Intermediate Instructor).

She said: "This project has the potential to speed up the process of behavioural analysis and increase the objectivity and accuracy of recording behaviour. Currently, behavioural assessment is largely based on human judgement leading to issues of consistency and experimenter bias."

Dr Roshier's research interests include biomedical engineering, biomechanics, animal communication, human-animal interactions, and animal behaviour in veterinary medicine. She is a committee member of the British Veterinary Behaviour Association.

Dr Roshier said: "It is really important that our vet students can interpret what an animal is telling you through its body language. This can go some way to understanding its emotional state. Using equipment that can help us measure and understand behaviour would provide important insights into how we can communicate with animals more."

Notes to editors:

More information is available from Dr Steve North in the School of Computer Science at The University of Nottingham, steve.north@nottingham.ac.uk; or Dr Mandy Roshier, mandy.roshier@nottingham.ac.uk, or Dr Carol Hall, carol.hall@ntu.ac.uk, or Lindsay Brooke, Media Relations Manager in the Press Office at The University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 5751, lindsay.brooke@nottingham.ac.uk

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015 . It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16. More than 97% of research at The University of Nottingham is recognised internationally and it is 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Nottingham Trent University’s five-year strategic plan Creating the University of the Future has five main ambitions: Creating Opportunity, Valuing Ideas, Enriching Society, Connecting Globally and Empowering People.

The Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education was awarded to Nottingham Trent University in November 2015.  It is the highest national honour for a UK university and recognises the institution’s world-class research. Pioneering projects to improve weapons and explosives detection in luggage, enable safer production of powdered infant formula, and combat food fraud, led to the prestigious award.

The Open University (OU) is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than 1.8 million students and has almost 180,000 current students, including more than 15,000 overseas.

 The OU was given an overall satisfaction rating of 90% in the latest National Student Survey, making it one of only three Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to consistently score 90% or above every year since 2007. Over 70% of students are in full-time or part-time employment, and four out of five FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.

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