27 July 2016

INNOVATION - Computer Software Shows What Horses are Thinking

Dr. Steve North (www.horseandhound.co.uk)
If and when inroads are made by a computer scientist in the equine world, it might well lead to a very valuable HABIT.

Dr. Steve North's work on an animal-computer interaction software (Horse Automated Behaviour Identification Tool or HABIT) is aimed at creating an interpreter of sorts - enhancing human understanding of horse behaviour.

“We are certainly trying to give animals a voice,” says North, a researcher at the University of Nottingham's Mixed Reality Laboratory. “A way to allow them to comment on things.”

North isn't doing the work on his own but collaborating with experts in the fields of animal computer interaction, equitation science, animal behaviour and biomedical engineering to develop a software program which will automatically identify behaviour horses are exhibiting and determine whether the horse is stressed, sick or suffering.

“Horses and all non-human animals are entitled to interaction technologies that enrich rather than exploit, North says.

“Anthropocentrism limits our understanding of human interaction in a multi-species world and currently there isn't any software that can reliably analyze 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."

His work garnered funding allowing him to gather an interdisciplinary team of experts to explore the project.

Researchers anticipate the software will be a viable application used everywhere from farms, to at homes on pets as well as in zoos and veterinarians' offices.

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is an emerging scientific discipline of animal-computer interaction (ACI) – this research just another endeavour to build on resources in the realm.

Understanding horses, in a way uncompromised by human interpretation, is a valuable tool, says Dr. Carol Hall, whose research at Nottingham Trent University's School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences focuses on the behaviour and welfare of horses, in particular ridden horses.

"This project has the potential to ...increase the objectivity and accuracy of recording behaviour,” she says.

Hall says the project will also reduce time taken to analyze video.

“Currently, if you want to actually record horse behaviours, either in a research setting or in a performance analysis setting, it's all based on human judgement ... watching video clips and recording behaviour they observe,” she says.

“There is a problem then with consistency and experimenter bias but the main problem is the time it takes. So, for an hour of video footage, you could be spending several weeks analyzing the behaviour that you see.”

Computerizing the task, she says, would mean enormous amounts of data could be sifted through and processed quickly.

Dr Clara Mancini, who heads the Animal Computer Interaction Laboratory at the Open University, says it is a natural evolution to see such software developed.

"We are coming to a point where technology is so widespread in society that animals are becoming exposed to it and interacting with it,” she says.

“However, we are still in the very early stages of developing technology that can interact with them in a user-centered way."

What's good for humans is also helpful for the horses, says Dr. Mandy Roshier, an equitation science expert and project collaborator says.

"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,” she says.

“Using equipment that can help us measure and understand behaviour would provide important insights into how we can communicate with animals more."

North says the plan is to see the program work with video – not necessarily created in a pristine lab or even a horse stable environment – but from amateur video or footage found on YouTube, for instance, and be able to identify and analyze horse behaviour.

“We want to be able to look at a group of horses or individual horses and say, 'What are the behaviours these horses are actually exhibiting and are these natural behaviours?'”

That would include, for instance, being able to determine if a horse is relaxed or stressed, he says.

By Nadia Moharib
Nadia Moharib is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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