Computational Anthrozoology

The computer 'as the lens' and 'under the lens'

Computational Anthrozoology is an area of anthrozoology that both (i) uses computers to study human interspecies relationships (the computer ‘as the lens’) and (ii) studies human interspecies relationships that are themselves mediated by computers (the computer ‘under the lens’).

In this context, the meaning of ‘computer’ may be considered to encompass any digital-era technology.

The computer ‘as the lens’ might include’:

  • The use of computer-based systems to help us understand interactions between humans and other animals.
  • Computer systems as supportive technologies. For example: the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision to automate the recognition of behaviours and emotions, during interactions.
  • Citizen science approaches that enable human animals to participate in anthrozoological studies.
  • Video and audio analysis - where computers are used to support the understanding of  interaction data collected in the field.
  • Data session and fieldwork review tools (for example: synchronising log files, video, audio and electronic notes into a navigable timeline for researcher review).
  • Using mixed reality technologies (virtual, augmented etc.) or agent systems to simulate human interactions with other animals.
  • Using an anthrozoological perspective to contextualise the ‘data mining’ of online information relating to human-animal interactions.

The computer ‘under the lens’ might include:

  • Studying parallels between human–non-human-animal interactions and human-computer interactions (as considered by the computer science field of HCI)
  • Studying relationships between humans and other animals, that are mediated by computers. For example: dogs watching TV with humans, cat enrichment with tablet-based computer games or horses living in automated housing systems.
  • Studying interactions between humans and virtual representations of other animals (for example: zoo experiences that either interpret, ‘speak for’ or completely replace non-human animals).
  • Observing and contextualising humans and other animals as they exist (represent themselves and / or are depicted) online (social media, YouTube etc.).

Computational Anthrozoology shares common interests with researchers in the computer science field of animal-computer interaction (ACI). This domain is concerned with studying the relationship between non-human animals and technology, designing interactive technology to support animals and developing methodologies that can enable animals to participate in technology design, as legitimate stakeholders. In ACI, it is considered that excluding animals from system design can have negative effects on both: (i) the animal users themselves and (ii) the purpose for which animal technology is developed. Research themes in ACI use technology both ‘as the lens’ (for example: developing software that observes animal interactions) and ‘under the lens’ (for example: studying how a cancer-detecting dog understands a touch interface).

An example ACI project using computers ‘as the lens’ is HABIT (Horse Automated Behaviour Identification Tool). HABIT aims to improve horse welfare by using computers (specifically, machine learning and computer vision) to recognise the natural range of equine behaviours. This technology can be applied in a variety of situations to give horses ‘a voice’. This works by (for example) identifying behaviours that are relaxed, versus those that indicate stress and / or pain. HABIT may also be used to evaluate horses’ response to new systems introduced into their environment (these may be ‘hard’ systems such as housing, feeding, enrichment, as well as technological systems). This is important, as non-human animals are often (but not always) ‘implicit’ or ‘unaware’ interactors with technological systems. In fact, they may be completely aware that they are using a system.

HABIT and similar approaches are transferrable to (for example) dogs and any other species that may be of interest to Anthrozoology.

Computational Anthrozoology is a field that is both data-driven (‘as the lens’) and reflexive (‘under the lens’). As such, it is open to the use of mixed and hybrid methodological approaches, combining elements of the quantitative (for example: statistics, ethology-based observations) and the qualitative (for example: ethnography).

Other fields and terms related to Computational Anthrozoology:

Computational anthropology, digital anthropology, techno-anthropology, digital ethnography, cyber anthropology, virtual anthropology and animal-computer interaction.