Category: technology

Cats May Be Able To Help Detectives Solve Crimes

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When you think of a crime scene, you probably picture uniformed officers manning the perimeter, crime scene tape cordoning off the room where the deed was done, detectives trying to reconstruct what happened, and techs collecting evidence.

Those techs might swab surfaces for traces of a suspect. Drinking cups and water bottles might be dusted for fingerprints, stray hair might be bagged and sent back to the laboratory for analysis. Discarded cigarette butts, door handles, buzzers — they can all yield evidence, to say nothing of cell phones, USB sticks and smart appliances.

But what about the pets? If a suspect was especially careful not to leave prints or touch anything at the crime scene, could the fur of a cat harbor DNA?

A team comprised of scientists from Australia’s College of Science and Engineering at Flinders and the Victoria Police Forensic Services Department wanted to know if cat fur could indeed hold critical evidence at crime scenes, so they conducted a study involving 20 pet cats from different homes, and what they found could provide an important tool for law enforcement. Their findings were published in the journal Forensic Science International.

If detectives are trying to piece together the identities of robbers who, say, broke into a home, brutalized the people there at gunpoint and stole their valuables, they can’t interview the victims’ pet cats about what they saw, but it turns out they can swab the kitties’ fur and have an excellent chance of retrieving useful DNA.

Blacksad
Blacksad is a famous feline detective in his own series of comic books. He may have to be careful not to leave his stray fur all over his own crime scenes.

The research team swabbed the fur of pet cats in their test households, took DNA samples of the adults living in those homes — who were the stand-ins for victims — and asked the human participants to fill out surveys asking about their cats, what they do on a typical day, and whether or not they have interaction with people outside the home.

After the team conducted DNA analysis on the fur swabs “[d]etectable levels of DNA were found in 80% of the samples and interpretable profiles that could be linked to a person of interest were generated in 70% of the cats tested,” the study authors wrote.

While most of the samples matched the DNA of people who lived in the homes — as expected — samples from six cats revealed the presence of DNA from other people. The research team didn’t take DNA samples of minors, and two of the positive fur swab samples came from cats who lived in a home with a child and slept in that child’s bed most evenings. But four other samples turned up “mystery” DNA even though no one else had visited those homes for at least several days.

For DNA from pets to have any real evidentiary value, prosecutors have to prove a “chain of custody” of sorts, establishing that suspects could not have had contact with the animals in question unless they were inside a home where a crime has taken place. If the cat is allowed to roam outdoors every day, for example, it becomes much more difficult to prove a suspect’s DNA was transferred to a pet inside a home rather than on the street.

That’s why the research team is hopeful, but also cautions that their study is a first step toward understanding more about how human DNA is transferred to fur, whether it requires a person to be physically present (as opposed to their DNA being passed along secondhand in stray hair or skin cells), how long a cat’s fur can harbor human DNA, and other questions prosecutors will have to answer.

“This type of data can help us understand the meaning of the DNA results obtained, especially if there is a match to a person of interest,” said study co-author Mariya Goray, a DNA transfer expert. “Are these DNA finding a result of a criminal activity or could they have been transferred and deposited at the scene via a pet?”

The team recommends more research “on the transfer, persistence and prevalence of human DNA to and from cats and other pet animals and the influences animal behavioral habits, the DNA shedder status of the owners and many other relevant factors.”

If they do answer the aforementioned questions and prosecutors believe they can establish a suspect’s presence at a crime scene thanks to feline-provided evidence, it might not be too long before we see a cat-centric episode on future seasons of Law & Order or CSI, both of which are scheduled to be revived as police procedurals enjoy a resurgence on TV.

Must rub on person!
As dedicated cat servants know, cats rub against everything and everyone. The behavior is instinctual, and cats have pheromone glands on their faces, sides and paws, which they use to transfer their scent..and fur.

‘Why I Took 50,000 Pictures Of My Cats Pooping’

When Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence, posed the heady question “Can machines think?”, he inspired generations of computer scientists, philosophers, physicists and regular people to imagine the emergence of silicon-based consciousness, with humanity taking the godlike step of creating a new form of life.

And when science fiction writer Philip K. Dick wrote his seminal 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — the story that would eventually become Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Bladerunner — he wondered what makes us human, and whether an artificial being could possess a soul.

It’s safe to say neither of those techno-prophets were thinking of fledgling AI algorithms, representing the first small steps toward true machine-substrate intelligence, announcing themselves and their usefulness to the world by helping us watch felis catus take a shit.

And yet that’s what the inventors of the LuluPet litter box designed an AI to do, and it’s what software engineer and Youtuber Estefannie did for her cat, Teddy, who’s got a bit of a plastic-eating problem.

“The veterinarian couldn’t tell me how much plastic he ate, and it would cost me over $3,000 [to find out]. So I didn’t do it,” Estefannie explains in a new video. “Instead, the vet gave me the option of watching him go to the bathroom. If he poops and there’s no plastic in his intestines, then he won’t die, and he might actually love me back.”

Estefannie casually described how she wrote a python script, set up a camera and motion sensor, and rigged it to take photos of Teddy doing his business. But, she explained, there was “a tiny problem”: Luna the Cat, aka her cat’s cat.

“This is Luna, this is technically not my cat, this is Teddy-Bear’s cat, and she uses the same litter box as Teddy,” she explained.

For that, she’d need more than a script. She’d have to build a machine learning algorithm to gorge itself on data, cataloguing tens of thousands of photos of Teddy and Luna along with sensory information from the litter box itself, to learn to reliably determine which cat was using the loo.

So Estefannie decided it was a good opportunity to “completely remodel” Teddy’s “bathroom,” including a compartment that would hide the bespoke system monitoring his bowel movements. The system includes sensors, cameras and lights to capture still images of Teddy dropping deuces in infrared, and a live thermal imaging feed of the little guy doing his business. (Teddy’s luxurious new bedroom turned out to be too dark for conventional cameras, thus the pivot to infrared.)

From there, Estefannie manually calculated how long Teddy’s number ones and twos took, and cross-referenced that information with photo timestamps to help determine the exact nature of Teddy’s calls of nature.

catpoopinggui
The future! (Note: This is our cheesy photoshopped interpretation, not Estefannie’s actual stool monitoring interface.)

When all the data is collected, Estefannie’s custom scripts sends it to an external server, which analyzes the images from each of Teddy’s bathroom visits and renders a verdict on what he’s doing in there.

Finally, Estefannie gets an alert on her smartphone when one of the cats steps into the litterbox, allowing her the option of watching a live feed and, uh, logging all the particulars. The software determines if a number two was successful, and keeps detailed records so Teddy’s human servant can see aberrations over time.

“So now I definitely know when Teddy-Bear is not pooping and needs to go to the hospital,” she said.

I am not making this up.

For her part, Estefannie says she’s not worried about a technological singularity scenario in which angry or insulted machines, newly conscious, exact revenge on humans who made them do unsavory tasks.

“Did I make an AI whose only purpose in life is to watch my cats poop?” Estefannie asked, barely keeping a straight face. “Mmmhmm. Will it come after me when the machines rise? No! Ewww!”

Every Attempt To Translate Meows Has Failed. Why?

New York Times science writer Emily Anthes details her experience with MeowTalk in a new story, and has more or less come to the same conclusions I did when I wrote about the app last year — it recognizes the obvious, like purring, but adds to confusion over other vocalizations.

Back in January of 2021, in MeowTalk Says Buddy Is A Very Loving Cat, I wrote about using MeowTalk to analyze the vocalizations Bud makes when he wants a door opened. After all, that should be a pretty basic task for an app that exists to translate meows: Cats ask for things, or demand them, some would say.

But instead of “Open the door!”, “I want to be near you!”, “Human, I need something!” or even “Obey me, human!”, it told me Bud was serenading me as he pawed and tapped his claws on the door: “I’m looking for love!”, “My love, come find me!”, “I love you!”, “Love me!”, “I’m in love!”

According to MeowTalk, my cat was apparently the author of that scene in Say Anything when John Cusack held up a boombox outside of Ione Skye’s bedroom window.

John Cusack and Buddy the Cat
Buddy the Director.

Anthes had a similar experience:

“At times, I found MeowTalk’s grab bag of conversational translations disturbing. At one point, Momo sounded like a college acquaintance responding to a text: ‘Just chillin’!’ In another, he became a Victorian heroine: ‘My love, I’m here!’ (This encouraged my fiancé to start addressing the cat as ‘my love,’ which was also unsettling.) One afternoon, I picked Momo up off the ground, and when she meowed, I looked at my phone, ‘Hey honey, let’s go somewhere private.’ !”

On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, MeowTalk took Buddy’s conversation with me about a climbing spot for an argument that nearly came to blows.

“Something made me upset!” Buddy was saying, per MeowTalk. “I’m angry! Give me time to calm down! I am very upset! I am going to fight! It’s on now! Bring it!”

In reality the little dude wanted to jump on the TV stand. Because he’s a serial swiper who loves his gravity experiments, the TV stand is one of like three places he knows he shouldn’t go, which is exactly why he wants to go there. He’s got free rein literally everywhere else.

If MeowTalk had translated “But I really want to!” or something more vague, like “Come on!” or “Please?”, that would be a good indication it’s working as intended. The app should be able to distinguish between pleading, or even arguing, and the kind of freaked-out, hair-on-edge, arched-back kind of vocalizations a cat makes when it’s ready to throw down.

buddytranslations
Accurate translations of Buddy’s meows.

Still, I was optimistic. Here’s what I wrote about MeowTalk last January:

“In some respects it reminds me of Waze, the irreplaceable map and real-time route app famous for saving time and eliminating frustration. I was one of the first to download the app when it launched and found it useless, but when I tried it again a few months later, it steered me past traffic jams and got me to my destination with no fuss.

What was the difference? Few people were using it in those first few days, but as the user base expanded, so did its usefulness.

Like Waze, MeowTalk’s value is in its users, and the data it collects from us. The more cats it hears, the better it’ll become at translating them. If enough of us give it an honest shot, it just may turn out to be the feline equivalent of a universal translator.”

There are also indications we may be looking at things — or hearing them — the “wrong” way. Anthes spoke to Susanne Schötz, a phonetician at Lund University in Sweden, who pointed out the inflection of a feline vocalization carries nuances. In other words, it’s not just the particular sound a cat makes, it’s the way that sound varies tonally.

“They tend to use different kinds of melodies in their meows when they’re trying to point to different things,” said Schötz, who is co-author of an upcoming study on cat vocalizations.

After a few months in which I forgot about MeowTalk, I was dismayed to open the app to find ads wedged between translation attempts, and prompts that asked me to buy the full version to enable MeowTalk to translate certain things.

The developers need to generate revenue, so I don’t begrudge them that. But I think it’s counterproductive to put features behind paywalls when an application like this depends so heavily on people using it and feeding it data.

To use the Waze analogy again, would the app have become popular if it remained the way it was in those first few days after it launched? At the time, I was lucky to see indications that more than a handful of people were using it, even in the New York City area. The app told me nothing useful about real-time traffic conditions.

These days it’s astounding how much real-time traffic information the app receives and processes, routing drivers handily around traffic jams, construction sites and other conditions that might add minutes or even hours to some trips. You can be sure that when you hear a chime and Waze wants to redirect you, other Waze users are transmitting data about a crash or other traffic impediment in your path.

Bud
“I’m thinking deep thoughts about turkey.”

MeowTalk needs more data to be successful, especially since — unlike Waze — it depends on data-hungry machine learning algorithms to parse the sounds it records. Like people, machine learning algorithms have to “practice” to get better, and for a machine, “practice” means hearing hundreds of thousands or millions of meows, chirps, trills, yowls, hisses and purrs from as many cats as possible.

That’s why I’m still optimistic. Machine learning has produced algorithms that can identify human faces and even invent them. It’s produced software that can write prose, navigate roads, translate the text of dead languages and even rule out theories about enduring mysteries like the Voynich Manuscript.

In each of those cases there were innovators, but raw data was at the heart of what they accomplished. If MeowTalk or another company can find a way to feed its algorithms enough data, we may yet figure our furry little friends out — or at least know what they want for dinner.

Influencers Are Cloning Their Famous Pets, Leaving Misery In Their Wake

I’d like to call your attention to a paragraph in this CNBC story about Instagram and TikTok influencers cloning their famous pets.

The story begins with an anecdote about Kelly Anderson, a woman from Austin, Texas, whose cat Chai had become Internet Famous:

The white and tan ragdoll had 85,000 followers on Anderson’s Instagram account @adogandacat when she died from complications following a surgery.

“I lost about 20,000 followers on Instagram after Chai passed,” she explained.

Anderson said she sent a sample of Chai’s DNA to the Texas-based pet cloning company ViaGen Pets shortly after she died. It took four years and $25,000 for Anderson to get a successful clone, and now she’s back in business with Chai’s identical genetic clone named Belle, who was born in 2021. 

Stop.

Read it again.

Now think about that last bit: Anderson sends the DNA sample to ViaGen, one of two commercial pet cloning operations in the world. (The other is in South Korea.) “It took four years” the article says “to get a successful clone.”

It doesn’t take four years to extract DNA from a viable sample. It doesn’t take four years to implant that DNA in an unfertilized egg, and it sure doesn’t take four years to bring a cloned cat to term.

So what happened in that interregnum between Anderson submitting Chai’s DNA and ViaGen producing “a successful clone”?

A damn horror show, that’s what.

The first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy, was “successfully” brought to term and survived after birth in 2005, but only after the South Korean lab implanted more than 1,000 embryos into 123 surrogates.

Things have improved since then, if you can call it improvement: Success rates reached the high single digits by about 2010, and now the most successful labs produce “viable” clones about 20 percent of the time, according to geneticists.

What happens to the other animals?

The cloning industry likes to talk about its victories and present stories about grieving people reunited with their beloved cats and dogs, but cloning companies suddenly go mum when they’re asked about the animals who don’t make it to term, the kittens and puppies who are born with horrific defects, and the many animals put down because they don’t match the customers’ specifications. (Cloning companies don’t talk about the puppies and kittens who don’t physically match the clients’ late pets, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be reticent if the “wrong” babies had happy endings.)

Cloning results in “lots of abnormalities and genetic defects–and a significant percent of newborn animals die in the first few days or weeks of life,” geneticist Robert Lanza says.

Or as a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Science put it: “In all mammalian species where cloning has been successful, at best a few percent of nuclear transfer embryos develop to term, and of those, many die shortly after birth…. Even apparently healthy survivors may suffer from immune dysfunction or kidney or brain malformation, perhaps contributing to their death at later stages. Most frequently cloned animals that have survived to term are overgrown, a condition referred to as ‘large offspring syndrome.’”

Even when it appears a cloning has been successful, the cloned pets often succumb to ailments caused by congenital defects both in the short term and long term.

By 2008, just three years after the birth of Snuppy, “a total of 3,656 cloned embryos, more than 319 egg ‘donors,’ and 214 surrogate mothers ha[d] been used to produce just five cloned dogs and 11 cloned cats who were able to survive 30 days past birth,” the Humane Society and American Anti-Vivisection Society warned in a report about the trend.

The failed clones aren’t the only ones who suffer. The cloning industry has created “a whole canine underclass that remains largely invisible to us but whose bodies serve as a biological substrate” bioethicist Jessica Pierce wrote in a 2018 op-ed in the New York Times. A similar “underclass” of feline surrogate mothers exists, constantly being impregnated and giving birth to kittens who will mostly suffer brutally short lives.

Belle and Chai
Kelly Anderson had her cat, Chai, cloned. The result is Belle, left, who looks the same but “is completely different” personality-wise.

Indeed, cloning doesn’t guarantee anything: It doesn’t mean the genetic copy of your pet will have the same coat color, pattern or personality. It does not produce the same animal, nor a real copy of the animal.

Barbra Streisand admitted as much in 2018 when she let slip in an interview that she’d had her late dog cloned, then wrote an op-ed in the New York Times to defend her decision after taking criticism from animal welfare groups. Streisand wanted another dog just like her late Sammie.

“One of the reasons I chose cloning was because I couldn’t find another curly-haired Coton [de Tulear],” Streisand wrote.

Cotons de Tulear usually sell for between $2,000 and $4,000 from breeders. Five puppies were born to a successful litter using Sammie’s DNA. The runt died shortly after birth, while Streisand gave two puppies away to friends and kept two.

Streisand said she’s happy with her decision and thinks of her Sammie every time she looks at the puppies, but says neither of them have Sammie’s disposition.

“You can clone the look of a dog,” she wrote, “but you can’t clone the soul.”

Really what the cloning companies are offering is a replacement built off the same genetic template. The clones are brought to life by crude, Frankensteinesque processes, and opponents say cloning takes away potential homes for lovable cats and dogs who already exist in our shelters.

Then there’s the whole nature versus nurture debate. Doubtless the way a cat or dog is raised will have a significant impact on personality, but a clone with the same DNA, raised precisely the same way as the original, could still have a much different personality.

Cloning opponents argue commercial pet cloning companies are grief vampires in the same way self-proclaimed mediums and psychics are in their willingness to exploit people for profit. The desperate daughter willing to fork over $800 so a vulgar woman with a beehive hairdo can abuse the memory of her father by “connecting” with him in death to discuss trivialities is in an emotionally fragile state, but so is the grieving cat or dog lover reeling from the loss of an animal companion who was closer to them than most humans.

I realize it’s easy to criticize. I can’t even contemplate the eventuality of saying goodbye to Bud, and I haven’t walked a feline companion to the foot of the rainbow bridge yet.

But there is no other Buddy. The idea that I could replace him like getting a new car or a new phone would be an insult to his memory, to his dignity and to his existence as a genuine individual. It’s an insult to our friendship, our bond, our shared experiences. The time he wouldn’t leave my side when I was stricken with Bell’s Palsy and the mother of all headaches, the many times he’s sensed my discomfort and offered comfort in his way, purring and nuzzling, the wonders he’s done for my seasonal affective disorder.

The time he pigged out on closed pistachios and I comforted him as he cried and cried until his tummy was better. The time I forgot he was sleeping on my back, let slip a fart and heard a confused “Mmmmmrrrrrppp?”, prompting me to laugh so hard, tears were streaming down my cheeks.

Buddy the Handsome Cat
“Big Buddy lies! I did NOT cry.”

The time he jumped off the balcony as a kitten without thinking of how he’d get back inside, and I realized how much I loved the little guy as I searched for him and tried to bury the thought that I might never see him again.

No. A clone wouldn’t be Buddy, wouldn’t have his friendly nature, his boldness, his kittenish meow or, dare I say it, his singular obsession with turkey.

We can’t honor our little friends by paying large sums of money for a laboratory horror show to create a clone so we can pretend that clone is the pet we miss. But we can honor them by doing for other cats what we did for them, opening our homes and our hearts and making a difference to one animal at a time.

As for me, I’m pretty sure Bud would haunt me for the rest of my days if I cloned him. “That’s my turkey!” ghost Buddy would say. “That’s my toy! That’s my laser laser! That’s MY spot on the couch, that’s MY spot on your lap and your chest! Who is this pretender, and why does he look like me except less handsome and charming? Big Bud, you have some splainin’ to do!”

Sunday Cats: FitBit For Felines, Plus CFA’s Top Breeds For 2021

A Japanese company that sells FitBit-like devices for cats released its first data-driven report this week and promises new revelations to come as more people buy the devices for their cats, leading to more data.

The company and its device are both called Catlog. To mark “Cat Day” in Japan, which falls on Feb. 22, researchers at the Shibuya, Tokyo-based firm issued a report saying data shows cats sleep progressively longer as they age, and cats in general sleep longer in winter.

Yeah. Not exactly a whopper.

Still, it’s one thing to know something anecdotally and another to prove it, and there are tantalizing possibilities as more kitties are equipped with Catlog. The collar-like device uses “biologging” technology to record and sort data on things like eating, drinking, sleeping, grooming and exercise. The data is relayed to caretakers via a mobile app and added to the information coming from every other Catlog, giving the research team behind the app hard data for cats across all ages and breeds.

The Catlog has received Japan’s Good Design Award, a sought-after mark of excellence among Japanese products.

Catlog
Catlog looks like a regular collar with an unobtrusive device attached.

Unfortunately Buddy won’t be contributing to that data even if Catlog pushes into the US market. Little dude won’t tolerate a collar at all and is not shy about loudly, repeatedly, incessantly communicating when he doesn’t like something. 🙁

Most Popular Cat Breeds of 2021, According to CFA

The Cat Fanciers’ Association has released its annual list of the most popular cat breeds. While the CFA recognizes 45 breeds and registers “non-pedigreed” cats as well, the list is based only on CFA registered cats. That means it provides a good snapshot of which breeds are trendy, but it’s not a definitive most popular breeds list.

Cats without a particular breed still account for the vast majority of all pet felines, but among people who registered their cats with CFA, Ragdolls were the most popular in 2021, followed by gentle giant Maine Coones and exotic shorthairs. (Note that this list does not include the fearsome and elusive Buddinese Tiger.)

2021-breeds-with-CC
The world’s largest registry of pedigreed cats has again determined the world’s most popular cat breeds, based on registrations. This year’s Top 10 list reflects the increasing popularity of certain breeds. However, registrations of ALL cats have increased substantially, reflecting the growing popularity of pet cats since the beginning of the pandemic.