Good Luck With That

January 25, 2010 at 11:54 pm 8 comments

How did I miss this?

Back in April of 2009, Wired.com reported that the United States Department of Defense wants to replace dog trainers with robots.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding research to “Develop and validate a portable device that automates the training of complex behaviors in animals without human intervention”

DARPA says they want robot dog trainers because:

Animal training currently requires long hours and the involvement of a human trainer.  The development of an automated mammalian training device would significantly reduce the need for human involvement.  In addition, it may enable the ability for remote on-site training in potentially limited access areas.  This device would also have the ability to better and more rapidly train an animal through the collection of performance metrics that indicate subject intelligence, capability, and progress.  Animal use is anticipated under this topic.

Of course – everybody knows that dog training requires nothing more than the rote implementation of a simple four quadrant operant conditioning algorithm. Even a robot can do it!

DARPA’s goal is to create an automated device that can train dogs to discriminate between objects, respond to verbal cues, retrieve objects, excel at tracking and more. Oh – and they want the doohickey to be cost-effective and portable too.

DARPA may have millions billions to spend, but I’m not planning for my retirement yet. If you’ve done enough dog training to accomplish much of anything, you know that it takes a lot more than well-timed rewards and punishments to train a dog. Teaching a dog how to do complex tasks reliably in the face of distractions is art, not algorithm and I think DARPA’s wasting taxpayer money.

Can DARPA build a computer that can read and correctly interpret canine body language? And can they make a robot that’s capable of using that information to communicate with dogs at a level that will allow it to train them to do complex tasks?

When I train a dog I don’t a complete a task, I enter into a relationship. A relationship built on trust and communication. A machine just can’t do that.

A computer probably has faster reflexes than I do, and it will probably work more hours for less pay – but it doesn’t have a soul. Dog training is an art and it takes years of mindful practice to do it well. When DARPA successfully builds a computer than can compose music or create sculpture, they may be ready to move on to dog training.

A machine won’t see the subtle shift in posture that tells me when a dog is confused and needs help. A computer can’t sense when to speed an exercise up, slow it down, make it simpler, add distractions – or just give the dog a heartfelt word of encouragement. I don’t think a robot will be able to tell how and when to transition between play and work to keep a dog motivated; or know exactly when to give it a break to process what it’s learned.

Most importantly, I don’t think that a creature that evolved to be a helpmate and companion to man will want to work for a machine. My dog doesn’t work for well-timed liver treats or tug toys – he works because he finds joy in the work – and in our relationship. No machine can replace that.

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Entry filed under: dog training, dogs. Tags: , .

Who’s a Smart Boy? Incorporeal Punishment?

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tom from Jack Russell Lover  |  January 26, 2010 at 6:03 am

    You make some really good points here. After all, how would you go about socializing a dog to a robot? I imagine a dog would be inherently distrustful of a trainer that doesn’t look and smell human. Unless they plan on building robot breeders, too.

  • 2. richard francis  |  January 26, 2010 at 6:20 am

    This is a veiled excuse to build an infantry trainer and it might be more successful.

  • 3. SmartDogs  |  January 26, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Interesting. I hadn’t thought of that.

  • 4. Jess  |  January 26, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    DARPA, eh? Maybe they’ll use their robot trainer to train their Big Dog robot.

    http://tinyurl.com/ylpmz28

    If it’s as creepy and noisy as Big Dog, I can’t imagine they’d have much luck with real dogs, or people.

  • 5. Wild Dingo  |  January 26, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Oh my dawg. My government embarrasses me. I mean, dogs domesticated to humans, not to robots. thre’s a reason why they domesticated. the teamwork. the relationship. (shaing head). i’m so embarrassed…

  • 6. SmartDogs  |  January 26, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    BigDog is deeply creepy. Somewhere in the archives I have a post about him and I’ve got an unfinished draft on one of his cousins. I should probably finish that…

    Wild Dingo – we have a crazy dingo here! That’s one of the nicknames we gave Zip the Kelpie (aka border collie on crack).

  • 7. Ken Chiacchia  |  January 26, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    It is, probably, a stunning new way to waste our money — but I’m not so sure it’s an impossible task, given enough money and time. Look, what we do with our dogs is a matter of facial and body expression, maybe smell, certainly timing. I can see us doing a good-enough replication of humans there.

    Obviously, the “operant box dog trainer” idea is a loser — but I keep coming back to the *timing* issue. Heather’s fond of saying that good timing can overcome a lot of vices in a trainer. And a robot will have perfect timing. Maybe it can overcome even this.

    We may be surprised at what’s possible with robotics in the next 20 years or so. I think we’re going to be surprised by which roles robots will and won’t be able to replace us.

    Hope you don’t mind a plug — I’ve riffed on this topic in my own blog!

  • 8. SmartDogs  |  January 27, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I love plugs, especially when they’re accompanied by intelligent, insightful commentary. Thanks Ken!

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