Videos have been making their way around the internet this week showing a vet communicating with her cat via a set of large buttons placed on the floor. Each button speaks a word or two when pressed, and in this case both the cat (Billi) and owner (Kendra) press the buttons to communicate with each other. At first glance, it appears that the cat is engaging in meaningful communication with its owner, conveying complex thoughts.
I first saw a video of this cat a few weeks ago on Reddit, and immediately dismissed it as wishful thinking on the part of the cat's owner. Looking at some videos of this a little closer, I’ve come to the conclusion that it's likely to be a combination of a few things:
- Obviously the cat is aware that pressing buttons gets attention from its owner. It has an owner who will feed it, play with it, pet it and take it for walks when it walks up to a set of buttons and starts pressing them. This feedback will encourage the cat to press buttons frequently, and will therefore allow for the filming of many interactions. I'm guessing that videos that don't make sense, where the cat presses random buttons, never get posted to the internet.
- All the buttons appear to have simple enough words that many word combinations make sense, so it can feel like the cat is trying to convey meaning when any random combination is used. For example, with three buttons that are next to each other - "Billi", "Love You" and "Happy" - most combinations of one, two or three button presses would feel like they convey meaning.
- At least one button appears to be positioned in a way that I suspect any cat could learn - the food button is always next to the feeder. This has been the case for at least two different layouts of buttons that I've seen in the videos.
- The buttons denoting desires are likely to get a positive response even if the cat presses them randomly. So, for example, if the cat steps on the "wanna play" button and then the owner tries to play with them, the cat is likely to respond. Similarly, if the cat is given some food or has its water bowl refilled after pressing the relevant button, it's likely to show some interest - even if that's not what the cat actually wanted.
- I imagine that Kendra, the owner, has (probably sub-consciously) learned to ask questions in a way that the responses she gets from button presses are more likely to make sense and feel genuine. The videos also seem to show her justifying and explaining actions from the cat that don't like up with the buttons it's pressed.
- There'll be a lot of wishful thinking here - both on the part of Kendra, the owner, and the viewers of the video. People like the idea of their cats (and other pets) being intelligent, loving companions, and so they're likely to gloss over all the inconsistencies and hiccups, and jump straight to the conclusion that the videos show meaningful two-way communications between a cat and its owner. The fact that the owner is a vet also helps add weight to the claims.
In the few clips I've now watched on YouTube (opens new window), there are already several examples where the cat doesn't seem to actually want what its button press suggests it wants. In one 2 minute video the cat presses "outside", and then doesn't want to go outside (to which Kendra mentions that this is the second time the cat has asked to go outside and then not actually want to), and later asks for "pets" and then walks away from Kendra immediately afterwards. I figure a cat that was intentionally wanting to be petted would press the button and then walk towards their owner, not away from them.
I like this one. It's not dangerous, it's unlikely to cost people a lot of money (just the cost of a FluentPet button set, for those who are fooled into thinking this would work for their cat), and it's a good test of people's skepticism. Thanks for getting me to have a second look at it, given that I'd just dismissed it the first time round!