As happy as a pig in mud or feeling sow-er? New technology could read animals’ emotions

A team of scientists are using AI to monitor the feelings of the mammals, starting with the most intelligent of them all: the pig.

The high intelligence of pigs has been well-documented, but until now, their emotions have been a bit of a mystery.

Scientists at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory are carrying out pioneering work to shed light on this area and are developing a system to determine if the animals are happy, sad, stressed or relaxed.

Professor Melvyn Smith and Professor Lyndon Smith of the Centre for Machine Vision are exploring the use of facial recognition technology to assess the emotional state of animals at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) Pig Research Centre.

The artificial intelligence, which is in its early stages, aims to use scans of the pigs faces to identify how they feel. Their photos will be taken and a machine will use AI to recognise expressions and attribute them to certain emotions.

The information is hoped to have practical benefits to those looking after pigs. If it is found the animal is in pain, for example, the farmer or handler will receive a text message to notify them of the issue.

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Our work has already demonstrated a 97% accuracy at facial recognition in pigs, said Professor Smith. ‘Our next step will be, for the first time, to explore the potential for using machine vision to automatically recognise facial expressions that are linked with core emotion states, such as happiness or distress, in the identified pigs.

The technology could help enhance the welfare of animals, as the team say happy animals require fewer antibiotics, steroids and food. It’s thought the system could be used on other animals too in the future.

Emma Baxter, animal welfare scientist at SRUC, said the technology could aid farmers rather than replace them.

I think farmers know a lot about their pigs and when to recognise very obvious signs of a problem and deal with those,’ she told the BBC. But with the way a lot of farming is going globally, where we have much bigger integrated farms the number of stockpeople to pigs isn’t necessarily in favour of the pigs, so by developing a tool that can monitor animals continuously it would aid farmers rather than replace them.