Help dogs deal with separation anxiety with this AI trainer

The first goal is to deal with separation anxiety, in a trial with San Francisco SPCA.

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Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
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Companion Labs

Dog training generally requires a human dog trainer, but what if it didn't and delivered better results? That's the promise of a startup called Companion Labs that has unveiled its first AI-driven dog-training machine in conjunction with the San Francisco SPCA


The CompanionPro trainer looks like a Soviet-era space heater but contains image sensors, a Google Edge TPU AI processor, wireless connectivity, lights, a speaker and a proprietary "treat launcher" that delivers all-important training rewards.

Computer vision is key to how the machine works, detecting a dog's comportment in real time to tune its delivery of rewards to reinforce desired behavior. It remains to be seen how well it can approximate the experience of a skilled human trainer, though SF SPCA says it will soon release a peer-reviewed case study on how the machine worked with one dog suffering from separation anxiety which, by definition, manifests itself when no trainer is around to address it. 

Generally, Companion promises the machine will "excel at performing repetitive tasks with perfect consistency and infinite patience," according to a TensorFlow blog post by the company. That suggests it has an eye on scaling not just the repeatability of training but also its volume. "Companion technology will allow shelters to leverage the time that animals spend alone to reduce stress and teach dogs the behaviors that may help them to get adopted faster and stay in loving homes forever," according to the SF SPCA blog post.

The CompanionPro claims to detect the nuances of a dog's reaction to training precisely using computer vision and its Tensor AI processing unit.

Companion Labs

While the machine does have audio command capability, it can start training without saying a thing, using its computer vision to detect when the dog happens to be doing something desirable and launching a treat to reward that.

Companion is based at the offices of SF SPCA and was founded by John Honchariw, a shelter volunteer who has also held engineering management roles at Google's robotics and AI units. 

CompanionPro is available for preorder for mid-2020 delivery. Like many new tech products, it's offered as a service, with $499 and $249 monthly fee tiers, depending on how many dogs a business wants to be able to simultaneously train with it. However, founder John Honchariw has also stated that Companion Labs will "always operate on a nonprofit basis with nonprofit shelters."