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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dogs can go on strike, demand their fair share

This just in: animals are able to exhibit a wide range of emotions. I'm sure you're shocked. But there's more to it than that and it's pretty fascinating.

When Friederike Range and her colleagues at the University of Vienna in Austria asked 43 trained dogs to extend a paw to a human they were able to scientifically prove what most of us already knew: that dogs have a complex range of emotions that not only include happiness, but also jealousy and pride — and most interestingly, the ability to know when they're getting the shaft.

In the study groups of dogs were trained to "give paw" or "shake." The researchers noted that all of the animals performed the trick almost all of the time whether they were given a reward or not. But here's the interesting part: since the dogs were in a group they could see what was going on with the others. And when other dogs received a treat for shaking, but they did not, they became less interested in giving a shake. They even showed more signs of stress and aggravation. In effect, it was proven that dogs can understand the concept of fairness and will go on strike. Researchers call it "jealousy" but that has a negative connotation. I think it is more similar to how most humans would react in an office environment if a boss were to give out raises to others but not to you. You'd probably become less inclined to go that extra mile, and rightly so.

The study, published in New Scientist magazine, proves that it's not just humans and chimpanzees that show this type of complex behavior. It explains why some dogs are jealous of a new baby and some even try to negotiate for position in the family (or pack). Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society and former Guggenheim Fellow, confirms this with his studies of carnivores. One of his main focuses is studying cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds). He believes that some animals can express empathy and may even have a moral sense.

It may be something that's been obvious to us, but when science can back it up then it becomes tangible. That's science we can use.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Could robots replace service dogs or assistance animals?

"Waiting for laser command." El-E, a robot designed at the Center for Healthcare Robotics at Georgia Tech in Atlanta demonstrates picking up a box of Claritin after the user points to it with a laser.

This morning CNN reported on a new technology from the Center for Healthcare Robotics at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. It's a 5 foot tall gray metal robot called El-E (pronounced Ellie) and it's being designed to help assist with patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. See El-E in action.

The robot is able to drive itself around a room and has proximity sensors that allow it to navigate itself and it's arm around obstacles — and can be directed to pick up an object with a green laser pointer. For example, if the person using the robot wants an object off of a shelf such as a hairbrush or TV remote, they would point the laser pointer at the object and El-E would fetch it and bring it to the person. El-E can also open cabinet doors and drawers as well as room doors.

What's interesting is that after a short time people seem to begin to respond to the robot as a companion. CNN interviewed Norma Margeson, an artist living in Georgia who has ALS. "Oh, I love it," she said. "I think it is such a unique character. It has a personality all its own. It can be a friend, a very good friend." That may not be a coincidence because Charles Kemp, the director for the Center of Healthcare Robotics lead his team in studying assistance animals as part of the developmental research for El-E.

El-E is, of course, a long way from being available to the public. We don't think that a robot could ever replace the warmth and companionship of an animal, but it may be an additional tool to help people with mobility and motor impairments in the future.