Interactive technology specifically targeted to nonhuman animals has been in existence for the best part of a century, ranging from biotelemetry devices fitted on free-living bears during conservation studies, to operant interfaces used to train laboratory pigeons in behavioural experiments, and robotic milking systems for farm cows aiming to increase the efficiency of automated agricultural processes. At the same time, for decades, dogs have been trained to operate human interfaces such as light switches or washing machines to carry out tasks on behalf of their assisted human companions. Moreover, in recent years, a host of computing-enabled devices such as tracking collars or teleconferencing systems have appeared on the pet market promising owners to help them to better care for and communicate with their cats and dogs.
But what role have animals played in such technological developments? To what extent do these developments reflect the perspective of the animals in question? To what extent have the animals’ individual and collective characteristics and requirements informed the design of technologies they find themselves interacting with? To what extent have they shaped the processes through which such technologies are developed? How does the interaction with these technologies influence the animals’ capabilities, activities, experience and welfare? With regards to the interaction between humans and technology, these kinds of questions have for decades underpinned the development of disciplines such as human-computer interaction and, more recently, interaction design.
Set in the multidisciplinary milieu of the interaction design tradition, our work is grounded in the theoretical, methodological and ethical foundations and values that have informed interaction design over the decades, and our mission is to advance the art and science of designing animal-centered interactive systems fit for a participatory multispecies society. On the one hand, informed by interaction design approaches and frameworks, our research and practice aim to improve animal wellbeing, support animals’ activities and foster human-animal relations, thus contributing to the development of more inclusive societies and sustainable forms of technologically supported living. On the other hand, by accounting for multispecies actors as legitimate stakeholders and contributors in the design process, our study and design of technological interactions aim to expand and strengthen interaction design theoretically, methodologically and practically.
Our mission underpins the fundamental aims of the ACI Lab’s research program:
1) Understanding the interaction between animals and computing technology within the contexts in which animals habitually live, are active, and socialise with members of their own or other species, including humans. Contexts, activities, and relationships will differ considerably between species, and between free living, companion, working, farm, or laboratory animals. In each case, the interplay between animal, technology, and contextual elements is relevant to our researcher.
2) Informing the development of interactive technology to:
i) Improve animals’ life quality or expectancy by facilitating the fulfilment of their physiological and psychological needs. Technology that encouraged healthy habits in animals or allowed them to modify their housing conditions at leisure might be consistent with this aim; similarly, technology that contributed to the refinement of animal farming or research procedures reducing their potential harm to the individuals involved might be consistent with this aim.
ii) Support animals in their activities and (legal) functions in which they are involved, by minimising any negative effects and maximising any positive effects of those functions on the animals’ life expectancy and quality. Technology that gave animals control over the processes in which they are involved, or minimised the side effects of any practices that affect them, or made it easier for animals to perform tasks they engage in might be consistent with this aim.
iii) Foster intra-species and inter-species relations by enabling communication and promoting understanding between parties. Technology that allowed animals to communicate and interact with with others (including humans), or that enabled others (including humans) to understand and respond to the animals’ interests, or that brought animals’ perspective into the assessment and development of interspecies relations might be consistent with this aim.
3) Developing user-centred approaches, including theories and methods, to inform the design of technology intended for animals, based on the best available knowledge of animals’ needs and preferences, to allow them to participate in the design process. Consistent with this, we regard animal users as legitimate stake- holders and design contributors throughout all the phases of the design process and beyond.
Traditionally the remit of Interaction Design has been the human species. Extending this remit to include species other than humans and adequately address the theoretical, methodological and ethical challenges encountered in the pursuit of animal-centered design requires the close collaboration between interaction designers and animal behavior, cognition and welfare researchers and practitioners, making ACI a fundamentally interdisciplinary field.
Our roadmap for this work includes: a) the interdisciplinary collaboration with experts in animal behaviour, cognition and welfare on specific topics, b) the interdisciplinary mapping of theories, methods, solutions and protocols relevant to interaction design, c) the interdisciplinary exploration of real case studies.
As a field of research and practice, ACI extends the study and design of interactions with computing systems to animals beyond humans, whilst still including humans themselves as members of the kingdom animalia. By taking a multispecies perspective, ACI acknowledges the evolutionary continuities existing between species, thus pushing the boundaries of interaction design in terms of participating agents, methods and applications.
Such a perspective has a range of potential benefits that range from improving animal wellbeing and human-animal relations, to the strengthening of disciplines such as human-computer interaction. For example, the development of multispecies research practices and design frameworks could enable designers to better account for the cognitive and ergonomic diversity of their prospective users. ACI could also broaden participation in interaction design, providing inclusive technology to support multispecies communities, and lead to the development of more sustainable forms of technologically supported living. In the longer term, by bringing more-than-human voices to the design table, ACI could help us revisit anthropocentric biases in human activity and interspecies interaction, and contribute to the exploration of alternative models that can better support biodiversity and foster environmental restoration.
Mancini, C. (2011). Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI): a Manifesto. ACM Interactions, Vol. 18, Issue 4, pp. 69-73.
Mancini, C. (2013). Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI): Changing Perspective on HCI, Participation and Sustainability. Proc. International ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI’13 EA, ACM Press, pp. 2227-2236.
Mancini, C., Lawson, S., Juhlin, O. (2017). Animal-Computer Interaction: the emergence of a discipline. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 98 pp. 129–134.