From computers to cats – Linguist Robert Eklund wants to understand



Many people know about Robert Eklund
for his research into how cats communicate. He is, however, also an expert in
phonetics and computer linguistics with a deep interest in sound. He has, among other things, a
master’s degree in musicology. In his leisure time he both plays and listens
to a great deal of music. He is a man of many talents. But when it comes to research, it’s the
way cats communicate that is in focus. Cats are probably the most
widespread pet in the world with more than 600 million individuals. They have lived with us
for more than 10,000 years. But compared with many other animals extremely little research has been done on cats. The better we understand what the cat is signalling
and the mood it is communicating the better we can treat the cat. And, indeed, we ourselves can feel
better about the mutual understanding. If I say: “Are you hungry, pussy?” or
“Are you hunnnngry puuussy?”? Does it make any difference to the cat? Is the difference something
that we do for ourselves half consciously, half automatically? [The cat miaows. ] Heeeeello. In principle, the only thing that
cats say “Miaow” to is us. When they are young they may
miaow a bit, but as adults they never say “Miaow” to other cats. What’s interesting is that a cat’s
miaowing lies at a pitch that is extremely easy for people to hear. Cats have realised that “Miaow” is something
that people turn their head towards. As soon as you see a species that adapts
and extends its sound repertoire you realise that this is
the starting point for how human language must have
arisen sometime in the past. And this is true no matter
which species you look at. The more species that we can
obtain observations from the better will be the mirror of how our
own language must have started. Robert has also devoted a large
part of his professional life at getting computers to mimic human speech. He is partially responsible for something
that annoys many of us in everyday life. Computer-generated voice: “Välkommen
till Försäkringskassans kundcenter” If you phone a company in Sweden and get
to talk to a computer instead of a person there’s a serious risk that I’ve
been involved somewhere. I’ve either built the models
that the computers use or I’ve written the actual dialogue. I may have written the sentence
you hear the voice say. It’s usually good for people to have a face
that they can target their irritation onto. This is it! [Pointing to his own face.] I’ve got around 35 cats as soft toys. But I don’t have a real cat,
because I’m allergic. When doctors ask me if
I’m allergic to anything I usually reply “lions”. That really gets their attention! But I have actually interacted
a bit with lions… and it turns out that I’m
extremely allergic to them.

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