AI, Pets & Emotions - 6 Questions with Professor Uwe Aickelin

We (virtually) sat down with Professor Uwe Aickelin, who recently developed an app called "Happy Pets", to see if artificial intelligence can help us understand what our pets are thinking!

Professor Aickelin is the Head of School of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne. His research is focused on using Artificial Intelligence to help people make better decisions. 

Thanks for joining us! What motivated you to create "Happy Pets?" 

I was giving a talk at the Splendour in the Grass Festival in Byron Bay on Artificial Intelligence last year. The audience challenged me to come up with something that uses AI for something good and interesting.

I suggested the "Happy Pets" app and people loved the idea – a year later it is ready! I thought it might be possible to do it as I knew human facial features can be learnt by AI. Nobody had tried it on animals, so it is good to see it works, too. 

How does the app work?

It works by identifying and classifying facial features, e.g. shape and direction of ears or eyebrows. Like humans, animals express their emotions this way.

What are your thoughts on animals and their emotions?

Better animal – human understanding would be a great thing for this world. It wouldn’t just help with social activities, but also in areas such as treating ill animals, e.g. understanding if they are in pain and how much. Our app is not quite accurate enough yet for this, but we will keep working on it.

What was the most surprising thing you've learnt whilst building this app?

People don’t like to hear if their pets have ‘negative’ emotions, so sometimes we get feedback telling us the app is bad. I didn’t expect this, but I guess it’s human, we want our friends to be happy all the time!

Do you have pets? If so, what pets do you have?

I don’t have pets in Australia, but I have some with my family in Germany. We have a Spanish Terrier and a Siamese cat. They are lovely and of course, the cat is much harder to read than the dog! A real poker face.

What's your next project? 

We will keep improving the accuracy of the app to increase its usefulness. In a way, this app is not my in my main area of work, which is health. So I am particularly interested to link this, e.g. can we measure if an animal is in pain and can this perhaps be used to help train vets?

How cool! Thanks for joining us, Professor Aickelin.

Download the Happy Pets app for free on iOS or Android. 

Read more on Professor Aickelin's research on pets & AI here: "Ever wondered what your pet is thinking?"

Visit Professor Uwe Aickelin's LinkedIn and Melbourne University profile.

The Happy Pets app was developed in the School of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne by the Melbourne eResearch Group