Non-human animals have been involved in machine interactions for many decades. Skinner’s famous operant conditioning chamber, used in behavioural experiments since the early ‘30s, is a typical example. These systems have gradually evolved into sophisticated computerised environments affording complex interactivity. For example, computer games employed in advanced primate cognition studies provide on-screen animations that can be controlled via joystick.
Within agricultural engineering, interactive computing devices have also been developed, for example, to optimise milk production in farming industry, with the introduction of the first automatic milking systems in dairy farms in the early ‘90s. These systems enable cows to independently engage in voluntary milking and express intelligent and social behaviour never previously observed.
Examples of a different kind of interaction are provided by tracking and telemetric sensor devices, which have been used in conservation studies since the early ‘70s and which have now become commonplace. Tracking devices have also reached the pet market, where they have been known to influence the behaviour of dogs by influencing the behaviour of their guardians.
In spite of their history, though, the study of the interactions between animals and computing technology has never entered mainstream computer science and the animal perspective has seldom informed the design of animal computing applications, whose development has so far been driven by academic disciplines other than computer science or by other industrial sectors. The design of these technologies remains fundamentally human-centred, and the study of how they are adopted by or affect their users remains fundamentally outside the remit of user-computer interaction research.
The negative effects of this lack of animal perspective become obvious when, for example, the behaviour and welfare of seals fitted with bio-logging tags and satellite transmitters are significantly affected, and data gathered during costly conservation studies risks invalidation; or when cows who do not engage with milking systems are culled and farmers suffer capital losses. Aside from mitigating these negative effects, however, a lot could be learnt by from a shift in perspective (see the Benefits page).
Studies into interspecies computer interaction have started making an appearance at HCI venues, but the remarkably marginal position that this research still occupies in this community and its research agenda is an indicator of the fact that its significance has not yet been recognised. However, advances in our understanding of animal and comparative cognition, and in computing technology make the development of Animal-Computer Interaction as a discipline both possible and timely, while pressing environmental, economic and cultural changes make it desirable.
Since we have trained them to do so for a long time, of course, we know that several species can use interactive devices of one kind or another, sometimes appropriating them in interesting and unexpected ways. More generally, though, we now know that many species have sensory faculties superior to ours, possess sophisticated cognitive abilities, engage in advanced problem-solving, use purpose built tools for complex tasks, communicate through articulated languages, experience a range of emotions, form complex social relationships, make moral judgements, and hand down cultures through generations. This has progressively made us more aware of the similarities between humans and other species, more appreciative of other species, and more attentive towards the significance of our relationships with them and the fragile environment we all share.
At the same time, the interaction modes afforded by computing technology have expanded well beyond those provided by keyboard and mouse. Tangible, embodied and proxemic interactions, for example, have brought physicality back into computing by engaging the whole body through contact and movement. Sensor technology has become more agile, robust and sensitive, better able to read the changes coming from within and around us. In general, developments in pervasive, ubiquitous and ambient computing are enabling technology to adapt to our spontaneous behaviours and to the contexts that these continuously produce and modify. Not only do these advances make computing technology more accessible to humans, they make it far more accessible to other species too.