Man's best friend

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Animal instincts.

“Come on girl, you can do it.” I gently coaxed Dr Gleitman's latest subject as she shook off the last of the drugs and struggled to lift herself from the bed. At three years of age, Callie was Dr Gleitman's youngest subject to date. Her dark brown eyes glinted as she gradually blinked them open, adjusting to the harsh fluorescent lights of the post-op recovery room.

Credit: JACEY

The matte black chassis of the neural implant peeked out from a small bald patch between the fine gold strands on her head. Even though I was not the one who put it on her, as Dr Gleitman's research assistant, I felt a twinge of guilt that I was subjecting her to this painful procedure — without her consent, no less, as she was unable to give it before the operation. But then again, God did not obtain consent when he created Man from the clay.

And now Man was imparting God's greatest gifts to his best friend. I'd spent a good portion of my working life in this lab, and even though I'd seen countless animals pass through these halls, I'd grown fond of Callie since we'd got her from the local pound, a day before she was scheduled to be put down. She was up on her feet now. She sniffed cautiously at me.

I wondered what vocation she would be assigned to as I leaned in close to her and let her lick my face. Because our funding came from the military, primates were usually used in jungle warfare. Cats, with their excellent night vision and stealth, were used in reconnaissance. Dogs usually went to the army or police, for more traditional roles as sniffers or for search-and-rescue. With her gentle demeanour, Callie probably would not be an attack dog. I heard that augmented animals were being used for therapeutic procedures now. Maybe she would be trained to be a seeing-eye dog, or used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder?

“Your name is Callie. Can you say Callie?”

Of course I was not expecting her to speak, in the strictest sense of the word. Her lips were not shaped for speech, and unlike the apes, her limbs were not shaped for signing. Her ears perked up, and she tilted her head in the most endearing way.

“Cal ... lie ...?”

The single red LED on the speech synthesizer blinked, indicating that the implant had successfully extracted, from the spatial and temporal firing patterns across hundreds of thousands of Callie's neurons, her thoughts, emotions and intentions, and further transduced those signals to spoken words, complete with affective tone, closely mimicking human speech. Dr Gleitman had added yet another success to his list.

I darted over to the adjoining office where Dr Gleitman was asleep in his reclining chair, feeling Callie's inquisitive eyes on me as I left the room. Normally, I would not disturb him, but I thought he might want to know that his latest subject was awake and talking. I nudged his hand. He jumped slightly, disoriented for a second.

“What is it, Moe?”

“Callie's unit is already functional, Sir! She managed to say her name when I asked her to.”

The poorly masked irritation at having his nap interrupted melted away into a satisfied smile.

“So quickly? That's incredible. She must be the most talented canine we've had yet. Usually it takes at least a full day for speech comprehension to begin, let alone production of the first word.”

He rose from his chair and walked to where Callie was busy pawing at her Elizabethan collar. “I wonder if it's because her youth makes her brain more malleable and lends itself better to the implant. Or perhaps it's because she's female. Moe, can you make a note of this?”

I went to the corner of the lab where the video recorder was and made notes for the day, watching Dr Gleitman interact with Callie as I narrated my observations.

“Hi Callie, do you understand me? Do you know where you are?” Dr Gleitman was already trying to extract complete sentences from her. That usually took weeks. Clearly he expected more from her compared with his previous subjects.

When I was done, I eagerly returned to Callie's bedside. I worked up the courage to ask Dr Gleitman the question that had been burning inside me ever since we brought her home.

“Do you think you will keep her?”

He looked shocked — perhaps I had spoken out of place. Surely he would say no, and Callie would be deployed to some faraway base, where I'd never see her again. But his face softened.

“I've actually thought about it. Because of her exceptional performance, I could easily argue for her to be kept here for observation and testing. Not to mention, I'm developing a soft spot for you Golden Retrievers.”

I could barely keep still in my excitement, until I remembered what Dr Gleitman had said about behaving more like a human and not like a stray pup if I wanted to keep my job in the lab. But it was hard keeping my tail still when the news was making Callie's tail wag so fast that she was sending strands of fur flying. Dr Gleitman was grinning widely at the sight. In time he would teach her to use language to convey her thoughts instead of these primal displays of emotion, as he had done with me.

“Well I'm pleased both of you are happy with this arrangement. You'll have to do the paperwork though, Moe.”

“Gladly!” I would get started on that later, but for now I thought of what to say to welcome the latest addition to our home.

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Tang, G. Man's best friend. Nature 490, 136 (2012) doi:10.1038/490136a

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