Despite countless tips all over the internet on how to “read” your cat—from the position of the ears to the signals sent with the tail—most of the time, you can’t figure out what’s on your furry friend’s mind. Wouldn’t it be easier to know what your cat’s saying before it gets into shenanigans in your house or, let’s be real—hurts you?
This outlandish idea that seems like a sci-fi movie might actually be possible now as engineers have made the first step to translate the vocabulary of meows into words humans can understand. Javier Sanchez, a former Amazon engineer who worked on Alexa and is now a project manager at tech company Akvelon, tried to take cat-human communication to the next level with a new MeowTalk app which can supposedly translate the secret feline language.
“For 10 years, I’ve known that there were data and science behind the idea that cats have a vocabulary. In 2017, I heard an NPR episode called ‘The Secret Language of Cats.’ I had recently left Alex as a Sr. Technical Program Manager in the Alex Machine Learning Platform team at the time. But that is when the lightbulb went off; I knew we could make an app and more specifically a SmartCollar to turn cat meows into human speech. I knew with my experience from working at Alexa that the technology was there to translate unique cat meows into words and general intentions,” he said.
Cats don’t have a shared language, but along with nine lives, cats’ sounds translate into nine universal basic intents such as “I’m hungry” or “I’m in pain.” However, each cat has unique meows that go beyond that. Using advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning, the MeowTalk app aims to translate your cat’s unique sound. Basically, the app is learning as you are. Pet owners can record their cat’s meows and fine-tune the app when they believe the translation was accurate to train the app to recognize their cat’s specific vocalization and intentions.
“Using machine learning, MeowTalk instantaneously translates your cat’s meows into one of nine general cat intents; these nine intents represent cat moods and states of mind. But each cat also has its own unique vocalization and vocabulary of meows that goes beyond these nine general intents,” the app description reads. “You can train the MeowTalk app to learn your cat’s unique vocabulary of meows (cat talk) by telling the app what each meow means when your cat makes it. When you give the app 5 to 10 examples of a specific meow for your cat (e.g. ‘food,’ ‘let me out’), the app can start to recognize that meow (be your cat translator) when it hears it.”
“MeowTalk is not static; instead, it learns and evolves with each translation that you confirm, adding to its corpus, just as we would add new words into our own memory banks or language processing programs,” Constantine Korovkin, the COO and co-founder of Akvelon, writes in a blog post.
The MeowTalk app was built with 2 part-time developers, 1 part-time data scientist, and 1 cat vocalization specialist over a period of 5 months.
“We spent all of our effort on getting the data science right and getting the cat meow detection to work ‘instantly’ on the phone—that was not a small thing. What is interesting to note here is that Alexa, Cortana, and Siri are trying to solve an easy problem with very complex technologies. MeowTalk is trying to solve a very hard problem with simpler technologies. With human speech, you already know what the words and grammar are going into the problem. But with cat meows, you have no idea which meows mean which intentions. So it takes a different set of tools to solve that problem,” Sanchez said.
We also asked what was the most challenging about creating this app, to which Sanchez said: “It goes without saying that Akvelon has built the first-of-its-kind application with MeowTalk. Getting the data science models to run on a phone and to run instantly was a monumental technological challenge. There is a reason why no one else in the entire world has made an app like this already and that is because only the best software developers and data scientists could have pulled off all the technical challenges needed to get this to work on a phone. Akvelon has the engineers and data scientists needed to pull off a project like this.”
The developer of the app, Javier Sanchez, said he has trained his app to recognize his cat Mittens’ meows for “let me out” and “feed me,” but you have to be ready to invest your time in teaching the app.
Cats’ parents seem to be excited about the opportunity to finally find out what their cats are saying. The app has already over 100k downloads on Google Play. The app is free for iOS and Android users; however, unlocking all the functions and gaining full access to the app will cost you $0.99.
As MeowTalk is still under development, it still has mixed reviews in the store. While people admit the app is in an early stage and has some flaws and bugs, it’s a delightful and entertaining way to pass the time with their pets.