Ask the Cow – How Animals Become Reporters

A break-through into a new world of journalism? Three milk cows wear sensors and a text-robot creates stories out of the data.

“Humans are not interested in me. But they should know how milk is produced.”, says Berta. Berta is a cow and lives on an organic farm in Ostwestfalen. Admittedly, Berta doesn't actually speak herself, instead author Björn Erichsen does. With his performance in a cow costume, Erichsen makes it clear what he and his colleagues Jakob Vicari and Carolyn Braun are trying to say: the story of milk production, from the perspective of the cow.

For their project “Super Cows”, for one month in autumn, the three want to collect data via a sensor that the cows swallow. Via the sensor, the complete production cycle is traceable. From the birth of a calf, to grazing on the field, right though to milking.

For the experiment, which they did together with the Westdeutschen Rundfunk (WDR), they chose three cows: Berta, who lives on an organic farm, a cow that lives on a small family farm, and one that is kept on a conventional farm, with 1000 other cows.

“We want to make the daily life of a cow visible to people”, explains Vicari. At the moment, there is a chatbot being programmed, that will even enable people to ask the cow questions, for example, what it last ate. The text-robot compiles the answer out of the collected data. Vicaria sets out the aim of the project: “People should ask themselves: what milk do we want to drink?”

According to Braun, today there are over 134 million so-called sensorised animals, for example storks, whose flight routes can be tracked. The data from the cows will land on a website. “The website is essentially the cow's diary”, says Braun.

In spite of all the technological innovation, the sensor cannot deliver any data about the emotional state of the cow. Braun and his colleagues know this. “We cannot judge whether the cow is happy or not”, says Erichsen. “The project is descriptive, we don't want to judge anything”, says Braun. “We can't decide, as to whether or not we are allowed to exploit animals. However for sure, an individual might come to the conclusion through the project, that we shouldn't do that to animals.”

The fact that the cow has to swallow the sensor, Braun thinks is harmless. “We spoke to animal ethics experts and doctors. The cow is not harmed.”

by Laura Eßlinger (EJS) & Marlene Brey (EJS)

Photo credit: Laura Eßlinger