What ethical/legal implications would there be if we invented a technology to make it possible to communicate intelligibly with some (or all) animals?

The constraints on this technology would make it such that it is easier to communicate with animals that have brains more similar to human brains -- but the result is that the animal's desires, needs, fears, goals, emotions, etc. are fed out of the machine in plain English, to the extent that such things can be inferred from the animal's behavior / brain activity. Similarly, humans can speak into the device and it gets translated into whatever signals (brain, chemical, sound, or otherwise) that the animal can comprehend, to the extent that the animal can comprehend them.

Is such a thing even possible in principle?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd be scared of what my dog could tell people about me... $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koko_(gorilla) $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N%27kisi $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ None of the animals people have attempted to "communicate" with come close to communicating on the level of even a young human child, in spite of being physically able to produce words/signs. This seems to suggest the limitation is in the animal's brains. Even the parrots can't coherently form a sentence or respond to an abstract question. $\endgroup$
    – dorfy
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ To communicate 'intelligently' with an animal it needs to have intelligence to communicate. If you just want to know if a dog is happy, sad, or angry, most people who deal with them can tell that pretty easily. if you want more nuanced communication, you need an animal that can understand these concepts, or your are just anthropomorphize the animals, giving them a more human aspect than actually exists. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 23:05

6 Answers 6


Which animals would this work with?

The animals that this idea would work with would be those which have a language capable of expressing abstract thought. To my knowledge, this would probably encompass only humans, maybe some other higher primates, and cetaceans.

The ethical implication of being able to communicate on like terms with a whale, chimpanzee, or dolphin would be that we would not be able to mistreat and hunt them in the same way that we do now. It's also likely that they'd be able to greatly enhance our view of the ocean by giving us the perspective of an ocean creature. If we accepted them into our society, there would also be greater ethical implications of dumping waste into the waterways, since this would all end up in the homes of the cetaceans.

Another huge implication of this would be that it would allow all humans to speak with and understand all other humans on earth. We are animals, after all, so this would serve as a perfect universal translator.

Communicating with other non-human animals

I don't think it's possible to have a device that would allow you to communicate to most other animals in the same way as you communicate to another person.

My reasoning is that most animals don't have the brain capacity to comprehend abstract thought. They've got the mental capacity to understand communication in the manner which they have evolved to do so, and no method of transmitting a signal to them is going to change the way they understand things or put together thoughts.

A dog whining won't translate into something like 'I want that bone on the counter,' for example, because that's not what they mean when they whine. It will translate into 'I want something,' because that's the specificity with which they have evolved to communicate. They rely on other context and body language to get the precise details across, which works fine almost all the time. Perhaps you could design a device that would tell a person what a dog wants, but it wouldn't tell them much of anything that they wouldn't be able to understand if they spent a lot of time around dogs and learned to read their body language.

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    $\begingroup$ I once had a dog that when he wanted something specific he made it very clear by looking into the humans and then imediately looking to the object he wanted, pointing it with the nose and then looking back to the humans, expecting us to give him the object. He used to became angry when we didn't gave him what he wanted. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ I'd consider that to be body language, as opposed to abstract language in the way that communicating via spoken words or via sign language is. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ Dogs can understand more words than you realize (even if it's still not a lot). There was some border collie that was trained to know 200 different objects by name and to be able to fetch any one of them. It was also able to learn new words by process of elimination. If it was presented with three objects, one of which was new, and given a new word, it would go for the new object. Obviously, most dogs don't get anywhere near this level. $\endgroup$
    – CoolCurry
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 4:02

In principle, is possible read the basical needs/ feelings of the animal like you said, but, of course, with not a actual tecnology. we are in that way: swedish cientists already invented a device with EEG sensors in dogs and they discover can really feel love like humans. so, with a little more decades your story will be plausible.

The ethical/legal implications, if the animals are not abused, problably would be ok and the rights of animals will not interfere too much (at the beginning it is possible they will interfere). For people in general will be strange because many humans will realize how your dog loves him, as the mouse is afraid of him, as the bird ignores him, so ... we can see the side of the animals :).

Even animals could create a riot, but only the most likely to intelligence as dogs, monkeys, dolphins ... but the revolt will not be attack humans, will probably run away from humans, but just if humans are really bad to the animals.

  • $\begingroup$ Planet of the Dolphins just doesn't have the same story possibilities. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 1:21

The thing is, we don't know how "intelligent" whales and monkeys and whatnot are because we don't really know what we mean by "intelligent" or "sentient". But for all we know, cetaceans for example might be highly intelligent and just not care about the same things we do. Maybe we can't grasp their form of intelligence and they can't grasp ours.

Who's to say that mathematical logic is intelligence? We don't even know if they ay with abstract concepts (or what are their abstract concepts), if they have a conscious conception of happiness...

If this actually is the case, then we are so different that we aren't even able to see the other species as intelligent. In this case, "communicating intelligibly" isn't even on the table.


The exact method of translating would be the issue - most (or probably all, at least as far as I know) animals don't have a spoken language like we do and rely more on body language combined with scents and noises. There are a few animal species that we can communicate with - dogs and other domesticated animals can learn and respond to basic words. Great apes can be taught to communicate with humans through symbol books and sign language.

Presumably the "translation" you receive would have varying levels of refinement. In all likelihood you would receive mainly emotion words: hungry, scared, happy, ect. That's not the say that animals aren't capable of more complex emotions - for instance, elephants have been known to touch the bones of their dead in a way that may be their version of grieving. Mammals such as dogs are certainly capable of feeling love.

One thing I've seen in the other answers and comments is the idea that animals aren't capable of abstract thought. This is not entirely true. There are a few important measures of intelligence that involve some form of abstract thought which animals pass - recognizing yourself in a mirror is one. Elephants, dolphins and great apes can do so, so they'd likely be the species most effected by your machine. Creating tools is another (both dolphins and chimpanzees do so).

A note on dogs - While intelligence levels vary, they are not at the level of the above animals or humans. What dogs are really good at is communicating with humans. As an evolutionary tactic, they basically outsourced their brains to humans. So while they may be communicating to you very clearly what they feel and be able to respond to you, it's more a sign of how close they are to humans than how intelligent they are. That being said, there's occasional dog who's been breed to think independently (border collies are an example) that will be unusually intelligent.

For the species effected, I think it varies how much will change. Laws may be enacted to protect these species, although some already are protected in some way. I doubt that their lives would be considered equal to humans, but they would probably receive special protection. Elephants would still be killed by poachers. Given all the terrible things humans do to each other, people probably wouldn't stop hurting intelligent animals.

One thing that might change is using them as test animals in labs (effects mainly great apes). This may be banned or may become more tightly regulated.

On the whole, I doubt much would change. Humans still don't always treat humans who are different from them well, and I doubt that they'd treat animals much better. Besides, we already have a fairly good grasp of animal intelligence levels, that this wouldn't be to new. Possibly there would be more public support for animal protection? Or maybe people will doubt the data of your machine.

How widespread your translating technology is will also be important.

  • $\begingroup$ The specific tool used by dolphins is finding the right shaped sponge to protect their nose as they rub up against the ocean floor. Only certain pods do it, and it's a learned trait, passed down from mother to child. $\endgroup$
    – CoolCurry
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ Re "recognizing yourself in a mirror is one": This is a very anthropocentric test, one which even some humans (for instance blind ones) fail, not because of a lack of intelligence or self-awareness, but because they lack the sense organs. Conversely, humans overlook the importance of sound, smell, and touch to other species. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 3:49

In order to talk to animals which don't already possess some kind of capacity for natural language processing, it would then be necessary to (magically) induce this capacity. This would essentially be rendering the animal sentient.

A good example comes from the Harry Potter fanfic "Methods of Rationality", where the protagonist's ability to speak to snakes is interpreted as such.

The problem was that Draco had also asserted that Parselmouths could send snakes on extended complex missions. And if that was true, then Parselmouths had to make snakes persistently intelligent by talking to them.

And when Harry had offered that hypothesis, Draco had claimed that he could remember a story - Harry hoped to Cthulhu that this one story was just a fairy tale, it had that ring to it, but there was a story - about Salazar Slytherin sending a brave young viper on a mission to gather information from other snakes.

If any snake a Parselmouth had talked to, could make other snakes self-aware by talking to them, then...

Another example would be Tamora Pierce's character Veralidaine Sarrasri, who has the capability to make animals sentient by talking to them for extended periods of time.

Daine's uniquely strong Wild Magic enables her to communicate with all vertebrate animals, and speak mentally with those immortals who do not have voices of their own. She can even control animals and force them to do her bidding, though she doesn't like to use this power, for fear of abusing it.

Wild magic allows Daine to heal animals, though, like all her magical abilities, this can sometimes occur out of her control.

Any animal who comes into prolonged contact with Daine, notably her faithful horse Cloud, gains intelligence beyond the norm for their species and begins to act more human.

If the magic was recursive (therefore allowing animals to speak to other animals), this would allow this sentience to uncontrollably spread by conversations. This would result in huge ethical implications, since the personhood of all these newly-sentient animals would be at stake.


There are two approaches to this. Most here are interpreting this using assuming the most scientifically sound version, that animals can only communicate up to their level of sapience, but most tv/literature instead shows human-level speech from animals instead. This is a very important distinction. Humans effectively provide moral weight to level of sapience. Killing a human or anything with human level sapience is unforgivable, killing a monkey or high order sapient mammal is the worst of animal quality, killing a chicken is acceptable, but only for a good reason, and killing an insect is done just because. The more sapient a creature is the more it is presumed to deserve human-level protection of law and culture.

Animals capable of Human level communication

This is scientifically improbable, to say the least, but this is how animal speech is usually implemented in most literature I see. If you went with this approach it would completely revolutionize how we treat all animals. I hope you like being a vegetarian, because killing and eating something you were just debating philosophy with is not going to happen. There would be a huge fight, but animals all over the world would receive far closer to human level protections. Pets would still exist, probably even occur more often, and some mostly-human use of animals, like riding of horses, may still exist; but only as a job the horse chooses to be employed at for pay in oats.

Animals still limited to personal sapience

This is far more realistic, though still hard to implement. Interpreting would be far easier side to do, but you wouldn't get nuanced sentences from most creatures. Look at your average dog, an experienced dog trainer can read quite a bit in body language, they are a very communicative species, However, they don't use verbs and adjectives and complex syntax. Your translator may say "defending home, uncertain if your threat" or "afraid and submitting" or something along those lines, explaining the meaning of their body language, but there will not be any real nuance beyond that, because that is as far as their minds are capable of parsing and thus expressing.

Talking back to the animal is far harder. Dog communication is mostly body language, a machine can't really communicate body language. Other creatures may throw in pheromones, or sound above or below what is audible to humans, trying to build a machine capable of doing any of those is quite difficult. It would almost be more plausible to assume some chip was implanted in the animal's brain that short circuited the process and jumped right to sending the concepts to their mind (still doesn't make sense, but the issues with this approach are easier to hand wave away by saying "we just learned allot more about the brain then we know now".

In terms of how it would change us, not too much for most animals. It may make pet owners better pet owners, many owners do not know how to interpret their own animals communications. Some may see an animal groveling in fear and think it's a cute thing they are doing to entertain their owner, without knowing the real meaning. Way too many allow small dogs to be rather aggressive and dominate because they think it's cute as well. A better understanding of what their pets are actually 'saying' could make them better owners, and perhaps lead to more pet owners. It would also make any industry that requires communication with animals easier, like breeding or riding horses.

Morally I don't think our views will be challenged by most creatures. However, there are a certain group of highly sapient animals that we constantly are setting harder and harder challenges to meet the definition of sapience because we want to believe humans are completely unique. These animals include many apes, octopus, dolphins, and any number of other 'smart' animals you have heard of.

these creatures still wouldn't be capable of full human-level communication. It's been shown they can't comprehend some concepts, such as the symbolic use of images (a scale model can represent a larger object etc). However, they will prove to have pretty extensive communication ability, we have already taught many apes to communicate rather well with sign language or symbol-boards.

This will of course prove a boon in researching these creatures, but the more interesting question is how humans will respond to the questions about their sapience and thus how deserving they are of protection. A believe a higher degree of animal rights activist would show up and argue for protective status of theses creatures, great ape personhood is already a movement now, though one that is mostly ignored.

However, there will still be plenty who will not agree to with this. They will point out the obvious limits to what these creatures can do to communicate. They will argue that the device you are using are putting 'words in their mouth' and is not an accurate translation, giving the appearance of more sapience then exists. They will argue that even if these creatures can communicate at something above toddler-level language they still lack creativity or innovation etc. In all honesty the majority of humans will just not notice one way or another, there are no apes local to them so they see it as academic and don't really care.

I imagine this would lead to some interesting philosophical debates and attempts to better define what gives one the right to legal protection. However, how extensive these debates actually became I'm not certain, as I aid the majority of the 1st world nations are far removed from most of these creatures, and in all honesty only 1st world nations will be able to afford expensive communication devices and philosophical debates on personhood, when your a subsistance farmer all you care about is keeping animals away from your crops you grow, and possible supplementing your food with some bush meat.


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