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I Use an App to Talk to My Cat
November 18, 2023

I Use an App to Talk to My Cat

Reading Time: 7 minutes

My Cat Talks to Me, MeowTalk claims to ‘tranMediaDownloader’ cat speech. Can it?, I use an app to talk to my cat.

My relationship with my cat is less that of pet and owner than it is hostage-taker and hostage. Four-year-old Vlada spends every night sleeping peacefully in my arms like a teddy bear. Then, too soon after dawn, her demeanor abruptly changes: She bites my hands, legs, and neck, and meows in my face with a force that can only be described as belligerent. ‘Stop shouting at me,’ I tell her. She does not.

After I have dutifully dispensed her morning tin of Applaws, Vlada is appeased. She sleeps until late afternoon, when she joins me at my computer, sits down directly in front of the screen, and starts knocking pens and Post-it notes off my desk until I concede defeat and pay attention to her. Back in bed that night, she again transforms into a cuddly toy, purring with pleasure simply to be in my presence.

Her personality change is like that from the malevolent Gollum into kittenish Sméagol in The Lord of the Rings. There’s even a physical resemblance: As a Cornish rex, Vlada has huge blue eyes and spidery limbs covered in soft down. (Unlike a Sphynx, she is not hairless—as I emphasize to everyone whose face betrays disgust.)

Like most pet owners, I’ve always wondered about Vlada’s doubtless rich inner life, and whether she’s actually as scornful of me as her behavior often suggests. So when a friend and fellow cat owner told me about MeowTalk, an app that records your cat’s vocalizations and (after a 30-second video) ‘tranMediaDownloaders’ them into English, I didn’t delay in giving it a try.

My expectations were low, for obvious reasons. But after I’d spent few weeks recording Vlada’s demands, a personality emerged that seemed to gel with the one that I’d been getting to know, love, and sort of fear. ‘I’m not afraid of you!’ Vlada ‘said’ via MeowTalk. ‘We’re fighting!’ And, on another occasion: ‘It’s on now! Bring it!’

MeowTalk claims to work by using machine learning and artificial intelligence to decode cats’ individual vocalizations, from straightforward (and, for some, evergreen) requests for food, to ‘more complicated’ ones such as the desire to mate or hunt. With frequent-enough use, the app claims, it can even be trained to learn your pet’s unique vocabulary—or, in Vlada’s case, her declarations of war.

It certainly sounds like a reach, if only because of the obvious challenge of verification: How can I, or anyone else, confidently mark its translations of Vlada’s threats as correct or incorrect? But my sense that MeowTalk might be onto something was confirmed when I compared my ‘conversation history’ with Vlada to my friend’s conversations with her cat, Pancake.

Pancake, a cream-colored British shorthair, is shy, determined, and—according to MeowTalk—a total love-bomber. Screenshots of his ‘speech’ show a constant stream of ‘I love you!’ ‘I’m in love!’ and ‘I found my love!’ (No wonder my friend pays for MeowTalk Premium, at a cost of nearly 3 pounds a month.) But what truth is there to MeowTalk’s claim to ‘give your cat a voice,’ and—given the simmering hostility to Vlada’s transmissions—is it even sensible to attempt?

‘You know that cats have their own personalities—that does come across in the vocalizations,’ Javier Sanchez, a co-founder of MeowTalk, tells me over Zoom from his home in Seattle. Sanchez was inspired to create MeowTalk after learning of Susanne Schötz—an associate professor of phonetics, studying cat-human communication at Sweden’s Lund University—and her book The Secret Language of Cats. (Schötz did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.)

At the time, Sanchez was working as a consultant at Amazon. He wondered if it was possible to create an Alexa-type device for cats, because there seemed to be a gap in the market. (‘They don’t care about cats,’ said Sanchez of Amazon in a 2020 interview.) His initial vision was for a wearable collar that would tranMediaDownloader cat speech in real time and ‘in Samuel L. Jackson’s voice,’ says Sanchez. He spent over a year exploring the idea, but could not find a battery that was both sufficiently lightweight and long-lasting. ‘The technology is not ready.’

MeowTalk was the compromise. Together with a team of engineers (many, like Sanchez, are current or former employees of the Washington-based tech firm Akvelon), Sanchez trained A.I. to detect and match specific meows to one of the described intents, using his own five cats as test subjects.

On Zoom, Sanchez holds up Mongo, a fluffy gray-and-white cat, to meet Vlada. They regard each other sullenly, like children forced into introductions by their parents. According to Mongo’s MeowTalk history, he’s probably thinking about food, Sanchez says ruefully. ‘Some cats just don’t have a lot to talk about.’

In fact, across all recordings processed by MeowTalk, ‘it’s usually food,’ Sanchez says. Technically, the app can distinguish between 11 ‘general intents’—though ‘there are definitely more’ to be added, he says. ‘Cats are very capable vocalizers.’

Schötz’s research into human-cat communication has done much to define and categorize the various modes—not just purrs and meows, but mews, moans, squeaks, snarls, chirrups, chirps, grunts, growls, trills, and even tweets (‘soft, weak chirps’). Cats can also express themselves to humans melodically, through sounds that Schötz has whimsically termed ‘Meowsic.’

From solely listening to recordings, people could often correctly tell whether the cat they heard was at home, being fed, or waiting to see the vet. Last year, French researchers found that cats reacted to ‘cat-directed speech’ (like baby talk) but distinguished between that of their owners and strangers. There is no question that cats seek to communicate with us and may, on occasion, even be understood; the kink in MeowTalk’s tale is in its purported ‘translation’ into human speech.

Sanchez is clear: Neither he nor any of MeowTalk’s team are cat behaviorists (though one co-founder was brought on because of his research paper on ‘automated classification of cat vocalizations‘). It’s ‘not technically correct’ to refer to cats as having language or vocabulary, he says—’but they have a set of sounds that are consistent and that all cats use universally.’

MeowTalk’s A.I. was trained on this ‘golden set of sounds,’ then refined further with user data. According to Sanchez, the app has had nearly 10 million downloads and 12,500 paying subscribers, each contributing to a vast library of crowdsourced meows. ‘We can sample that, and use our human ear to determine whether or not our model got it right or wrong as well,’ says Sanchez.

He puts MeowTalk’s average accuracy at about 70 percent. For purring, he adds, ‘it’s at 99.9 percent.’ But you don’t need an app to tell you that when your cat is purring, she’s 99.9 percent likely to be content.

This highlights an obvious shortcoming of MeowTalk: On all but the most self-evident translations, users sort of have to take the app at face value—even though their cat might be telling them the opposite.

‘You can’t just look at one component of communication,’ says Mikel Maria Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant based in Sacramento, California. As well as vocalizing, cats communicate using body language and scent signals, much of it beyond ready human comprehension. A recent study found that cats have 276 distinct facial expressions to interact with each other; humans, by contrast, have only 44. ‘Their experience of the world is qualitatively different from ours,’ says Delgado.

MeowTalk downplays this to center people. Research has shown that cats meow primarily when in the presence of humans, suggesting that we can’t help but skew the app’s inputs, while some cats rarely vocalize at all. In fact, by seeming to deliver a direct translation of our cats straight to our palm, MeowTalk may prevent us from actually hearing them. ‘Part of it is a desire to make our cats be more like us, rather than let them be cats,’ says Delgado.

She was not impressed by a tutorial video she watched on the MeowTalk website: ‘The cat clearly looks irritated—and the app told her to pet him,’ she says incredulously. She likens the app to the ‘talking buttons,’ popular on social media, that dogs and cats are trained to push, ostensibly to communicate with their owners. It’s difficult to say with confidence that the animal has not been influenced toward a particular outcome, let alone kid ourselves that we’re speaking the same language. ‘If you misinterpret that information, maybe you’re missing an opportunity to understand your cat or help them,’ says Delgado. It can already be tricky, she adds, to tell when a cat is stressed, sick, or in pain, without an over-confident algorithm complicating the picture.

On the other hand, when a cat wants attention, they tend to make it very obvious—the way Vlada does when she tries her best to derail my Zoom calls. Instead of checking an app, Delgado explains, we should develop our own instincts about our pets’ needs and ensure that we’re meeting them. For instance, unlike her past cats, Delgado’s current trio are not that affectionate, and so, she says, ‘I’ve had to find different ways of interacting with them.’

One of the questions Delgado is most often asked is ‘How do I know if my cat loves me?’ It really seems to bother people, she says. ‘We want to be loved; we want to feel like we’re special.’

This might be MeowTalk’s most significant impact: as a means of flattering cat owners’ fragile egos, assuaging their anxious attachments with unambiguous declarations of love. Of course, we all want our cats to say ‘I love you,’ but we shouldn’t mistake MeowTalk—all the purring reassurances, its streams of sweet nothings—for something it’s not. ‘This app is trying to mold cats into what we want them to be, instead of what they’re really feeling,’ says Delgado. ‘Your cat is not responsible for your emotional well-being, but you are responsible for theirs.’

Vlada is prepared to bite me to get what she wants. She refuses to let me work or rest. She never, ever tells me she loves me. But I love her, and she enlarges my life in wonderful and unpredictable ways—my forays into MeowTalk and cat translation being one of them. In the often-impenetrable cat-human relationship, love really looks like opening up that can of Applaws in a timely fashion, making time between work commitments for head scratches, and scooping out the litter box—regardless of whether or not your cat declares her undying gratitude in return. On the rare occasion that Vlada tells me ‘I’m happy,’ I don’t kid myself that it has more to do with me than with the packet of cheese treats in my hand. Still, it’s nice to hear her say it.


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