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AI Seminar

AI Seminar: Con Slobodchikoff – Decoding Animal Languages: Possibilities and Challenges

Con SlobodchikoffProfessor Emeritus, Department of Biological SciencesNorthern Arizona University
3725 Beyster BuildingMap


https://umich.zoom.us/j/92216884113 (password: UMichAI)


For a long time, most people believed that animals were not capable of language. That was the Doctor Dolittle fantasy, a children’s tale. Biologists, philosophers, and linguists proclaimed that humans were the only ones capable of language. All the other animals merely communicated, which was usually taken to mean that they sent and responded to signals through instinct, without any intention or conscious thought. Now, an increasing body of evidence is showing that many animals have either the capability of language or have language-like communication systems. I summarize a lot of that information in my book, Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals. With the advent of sophisticated methods of analysis, including powerful statistics and AI, we now have the capability of decoding animal languages. I present two examples, one with my work in decoding the language of prairie dogs, the other with my steps in decoding the language of dogs, and talk about the challenges of decoding an animal language.


Con Slobodchikoff is an animal behaviorist and conservation biologist. He is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, where he taught biology and animal behavior. While at NAU, his primary research emphasis was referential communication within animal communication systems, and also involved elucidating why animals have social behavior. In both arenas, the model species were Gunnison’s prairie dogs, chosen because of their sophisticated communication and social systems. Con was also a Fulbright Fellow and, in 1983, a visiting professor at Kenyatta University in Kenya.

Con received both his B.S. and his Ph.D. in from the University of California, Berkeley. Con is the founder and Director of the Animal Language Institute, a clearinghouse for research and forum for discussions about animal communication, including language. He is also President and CEO of Animal Communications Ltd. This company has provided dog training classes and also consulting for pet behavior problems using scientific approaches.

Dr. Slobodchikoff is the author of Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals (St. Martin’s Press 2012) and lead author of Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society (Harvard University Press 2009). He has also edited and co-edited three other books and published around 100 scholarly articles on various aspects of animal behavior, ecology, and evolution in such diverse publications as Behavioural Processes, Ecology, Behaviour, Journal of Arid Environments, Journal of Experimental Biology, Animal Behaviour, Canadian Journal of Zoology, Ethology, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, American Zoologist, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Journal of Mammalogy, and Intelligent Automation and Soft Computing. Until 2010, Con’s scientific work involved studying the communication and social behavior of prairie dogs. Since that time he has been researching animal languages, with a specific emphasis on the language of dogs and of cats.

Dr. Slobodchikoff’s work has been featured widely in the media. His video appearances have included Dateline NBC, ABC World News, CNN, Country Canada, Quantum (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), Teirzeit (Belgian-German TV), BBC, Turner Broadcasting, Brixen Productions (Discovery Channel), and Evolve (History Channel). His work was the subject of two one-hour documentaries, Talk of the Town (BBC 2009) and Prairie Dog Chatter (Animal Planet Wild Kingdom 2010). He has also been interviewed on various radio outlets, including The Diane Rehm Show, Radio Lab, NPR’s All Things Considered, NPR’s Morning Edition, and BBC radio. Stories about his work have appeared in the LA Times, Boston Globe, Denver Post, Washington Post, NY Times, and others, as well as numerous magazines including Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, People Magazine, and Discover Magazine.


This AI Seminar was sponsored by LG AI Research.


AI Lab

Faculty Host

Rada Mihalcea