What is Animal Computer Interaction?

By Dr Sarah Webber, Doreen Thomas Postdoctoral Fellow,
School of Computing and Information Systems,
CAIDE Summer Research Academy

As digital technologies permeate every aspect of human life, other species are being affected, also. In homes, we’re seeing the arrival of ‘pet tech’: digital toys, iPad games, fitness trackers and interactive video cameras for our cats and dogs. Farms are being equipped with sensors to monitor livestock health and movement. In wildlife sanctuaries, intelligent feeding and gate systems enable animal care without human contact. And in zoos, interactive technologies can enrich animals’ lives through sensory and cognitive stimulation.

Creating technology for non-human animals presents designers with a new challenges and conundrums. The field of human-computer interaction (HCI) has generated numerous methods and toolkits for (human) user-centred design. These extend from interviews and focus groups to creative workshops with Lego and Play-Doh. Unfortunately, few of these methods work well with species that do not share human language and our capacity for speculative, abstract envisioning.


How can user-centred design be adapted to animals?

An important goal for technology designers is to learn about the needs, preferences and context of future users. When it comes to working with non-human animals, we need to take time to get to know the species: how they experience the world through their senses, how they interact with the world, and how they make sense of the world. Digital innovators need to learn from the animal sciences in order to know what technology would  be meaningful to an orangutan, cat or lizard. We can also make use of scientific methods to ascertain animals’ preferences and needs. For example, preference tests allow us to compare the desirability of two alternative prototype designs.

Do animals even want digital technology in their lives?

Most animal-computer interaction research is guided by the principle that there should be a benefit to the animal participating in the research, and others of their species. Conservationists hope to prevent koala road deaths with proximity detection systems, and to protect sea turtle nests by automatically spotting their predators. Farmers might promote animal wellbeing with fitbits for cows or automated monitoring systems to detect pain in a sheep’s face. What’s more, seeing animals use computers seems to give people a new perspective on other species, which enhances empathy and might motivate greater concern for animal welfare and biodiversity.

But really? Animals using computers?

Watching animals use computers often provokes strong emotive reactions. Primates’ powerful problem-solving abilities are made obvious when orangutans play a computer game, or chimpanzees complete a rapid-fire memory task on a touchscreen. On the other hand, some people feel uneasy about technology intervening in animals’ lives. This is partly down to concerns about digital technology intervening in, or replacing ‘the natural world’. We must recognise of course that there is a long history of animals interacting with other human-made technologies. Some people worry that animals could become ‘addicted’ to interactive technology. But so far, it seems that most species have a relatively short-lived interest in screen-based devices, and similar digital technologies.

What are the risks and how should we manage them?

There are risks we should be aware of when designing and deploying digital technology that affects animals. Firstly, there are valid concerns that humans’ interests are more influential than animals’ in the development of most animal tech. Animal productivity is a primary motivator for farm-based technology. Pet tech appeals to owners’ desire to communicate with their furry family, and to alleviate guilt about providing for their pets’ needs. Secondly, there are concerns that such technologies might lead to people spending less time attending to their livestock or pets. Systems which claim to automatically detect animal suffering or illness could provide a false sense of security, reducing attention to other indicators of animal health and so having a negative impact on animal wellbeing, overall.  Finally, seeing animals using computers can give false impressions about the ways in which other species are the same as humans (or similar to us, but not as smart). We should take care to design technologies which are appropriate to the animal, take account of the complexity and uniqueness of their way of interacting with the world, and encourage positive relations between humans and other species.


Sarah Webber is a Research Fellow with the Human-Computer Interaction group in the School of Computing & Information Systems. Her research focuses on the design and use of interactive technologies in zoos, for connecting visitors with wildlife and for animal welfare.

Sarah's research explores the effects that digital technologies can have on people’s encounters with zoo animals. This includes the co-design of a touch-based digital enrichment system for orangutans (‘Kinecting with Orangutans’), and evaluation of effects on visitors’ perceptions of animals. As part of the Human-Computer Interaction group, Sarah has contributed to research into interactive technologies for social interaction, for wellbeing, and for older users and marginalised groups. She has a keen interest in the ethical issues associated with digital technology design. She has a professional IT background, having worked across a range of corporate, government, academic and non-profit organisations, in business analysis and project management, user research and UX evaluation.

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Sarah Webber