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.
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.”