If you’re like many of us here at Infused Innovations, you love both technology and animals. Are they usually discussed together? No. But there are some really cool innovative tools can be used to benefit animal welfare. Technology can help animals in a number of ways: the possibilities developing today are offering new insights and operations that are kinder and more mindful of animals’ health and survival. Here are a few that have recently caught my eye.
Virtual Reality Visits to Livestock Farms
The meat industry is infamous for its poor and unsanitary conditions for livestock. Animals are often crammed into tiny spaces, inviting disease and infection—which is commonly treated preemptively with antibiotics. Of course, livestock farmers wouldn’t want customers to think of their facilities this way. They may try to portray their conditions favorably by dressing up and highlighting one spot that doesn’t show the true environment of the place. Likewise, those working in the meat industry sometimes complain about the opposite—that animal rights or environmental activists are portraying the situation as worse than it really is.
Some animal advocacy groups, such as Animal Equality and the Humane Society, are now using virtual reality video technology to give viewers an immersive experience of the whole environment at livestock facilities, rather than a limited snapshot. They’ve created 3D films that give virtual tours of dairy farms in Mexico, Germany, Britain, and the United States. With the VR technology, viewers can “stand” inside the facility and look around in any direction they choose.
Content for such videos is created without permission, so it can be difficult for advocacy groups to get their 360-degree footage, which they then stitch together to create immersive scenarios. The next step is to supply viewers with the headsets necessary to view the 3D experience. Animal Equality has visited 117 universities with provided headsets in order to share these experiences, and they are working on designing a mobile app that can give a similar view. Despite the challenges, animal rights groups are hopeful that expanded awareness will lead to consumer demand for better practices.
Translating the Language of Pigs
Another innovation which gets more support from farmers themselves is an interesting algorithm that helps interpret the meaning of pigs’ various grunts and squeals. The different sounds these animals make can be an indicator of their health and wellbeing. A short, happy grunt would be contrasted with a squeal of fear or stress. And even though trained ears can interpret these different vocalizations better than the average person can, artificial intelligence performed best of all when tested in a study by SoundWel.
The researchers recorded thousands of vocalizations from over 400 pigs and correlated them with different emotions based on related events they observed at the time (such as reunions with other pigs, feeding time, castration, and awaiting slaughter). Then they played the pigs’ expressions for untrained people, trained people, and artificial intelligence. They found that the AI system correctly identified 92% of the vocalizations—more than any of the human participants (trained or untrained) did. Those working on the project want to make a user-friendly and cost-effective tool that will help identify pigs’ mental states and give warning signs early on if there are any problems at livestock sites.
A New Alternative to Animal Testing
Animals have long been used for all kinds of testing, from product and drug development to cancer research. There are some inherent problems with this, though: animal trials don’t always accurately predict the responses that will occur in the human body, and in many cases disease must be artificially introduced to lab animals in order to do the research.
A better alternative to animals? Microchips. Innovative researchers are now creating microchips lined with living cells and tissues from humans, which can mimic the molecular characteristics of the organs they came from. This provides greater precision than testing with a different species. It gives a real-time look at how the human body itself handles disease. Researchers working on this technology ultimately aim to combine multiple organs on chips that could represent the complexity of the entire human body. At this point the technology isn’t able to replace all areas of animal testing, but some are hoping that this method (together with other alternatives) eventually will.
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