The life of a sheep is not as cushy as it looks. They suffer injury and infection, and can’t tell their human handlers when they’re in pain. Recently, veterinarians have developed a protocol for estimating the pain a sheep is in from its facial expressions, but humans apply it inconsistently, and manual ratings are time-consuming. Computer scientists at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom have stepped in to automate the task. They started by listing several “facial action units” (AUs) associated with different levels of pain, drawing on the Sheep Pain Facial Expression Scale. They manually labeled these AUs—nostril deformation, rotation of each ear, and narrowing of each eye—in 480 photos of sheep. Then they trained a machine-learning algorithm by feeding it 90% of the photos and their labels, and tested the algorithm on the remaining 10%. The program’s average accuracy at identifying the AUs was 67%, about as accurate as the average human, the researchers will report today at the IEEE International Conference on Automatic Face and Gesture Recognition in Washington, D.C. Ears were the most telling cue. Refining the training procedure further boosted accuracy. Given additional labeled images, the scientists expect their method would also work with other animals. Better diagnosis of pain could lead to quicker treatment.
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