The famous British futurist Ian Pearson predicted that by 2050, humanity will be able to implant devices in their pets and other animals that will enable them to talk to us.
The question arises: if such a device can also give a voice to those animals that are raised and killed for food, will this force people to reconsider their view of eating meat?
First of all, it is important to understand what kind of opportunities such technology will give animals. It is doubtful that she will allow the animals to coordinate their efforts and overthrow their captors in some Orwellian way. Animals have certain ways of communicating with each other, but they cannot combine their efforts with each other to achieve some intricate goals, since this would require additional abilities from them.
It is likely that this technology will provide some semantic overlay to the current communicative repertoire of animals (for example, “woof, woof!” would mean “intruder, intruder!”). It is quite possible that this alone may cause some people to stop eating meat, since talking cows and pigs would “humanize” in our eyes and seem to us more like ourselves.
There is some empirical evidence to support this idea. A group of researchers led by writer and psychologist Brock Bastian asked people to write a short essay on how animals are similar to humans, or vice versa – humans are animals. Participants who humanized animals had more positive attitudes towards them than participants who found animal traits in humans.
Thus, if this technology allowed us to think of animals more like humans, then it could contribute to a better treatment of them.
But let’s imagine for a moment that such technology could do more, namely, reveal to us the mind of an animal. One way this could benefit animals is to show us what animals think about their future. This could prevent people from seeing animals as food, because it would make us see animals as beings that value their own lives.
The very concept of “humane” killing is based on the idea that an animal can be killed by making an effort to minimize its suffering. And all because animals, in our opinion, do not think about their future, do not value their future happiness, are stuck “here and now.”
If technology gave animals the ability to show us that they have a vision for the future (imagine your dog saying “I want to play ball!”) and that they value their lives (“Don’t kill me!”), it’s possible that we would have more compassion for animals killed for meat.
However, there could be some snags here. First, it is possible that people would simply attribute the ability to form thoughts to technology rather than to an animal. Therefore, this would not change our fundamental understanding of animal intelligence.
Second, people often tend to ignore information about animal intelligence anyway.
In a series of special studies, scientists experimentally changed people’s understanding of how smart different animals are. People have been found to use information about animal intelligence in a way that prevents them from feeling bad about participating in harming intelligent animals in their culture. People ignore information about animal intelligence if the animal is already used as food in a given cultural group. But when people think of animals that are not eaten or animals that are used as food in other cultures, they think that the intelligence of an animal matters.
So it is quite possible that giving animals the opportunity to speak will not change the moral attitude of people towards them – at least towards those animals that people already eat.
But we must remember the obvious thing: animals communicate with us without any technology. The way they talk to us affects how we treat them. There is not much difference between a crying, frightened baby and a crying, frightened pig. And dairy cows whose calves are stolen shortly after birth grieve and scream heart-rendingly for weeks. The problem is, we don’t bother to really listen.