Researchers to Use a High-Tech Translator to Converse With Dolphins

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Interspecies communication? Perhaps not with lion cubs just yet, but humans are hoping to break through to dolphins with a new two-way translator.

What would it be like to have a conversation with an animal? We live side-by-side with dogs, cats, goldfish. What would it be like to be able to know–from them saying so–what’s on their minds? While goldfish, cats, and dogs might not be the most chatty conversationalists, dolphins very well might be. Researchers at the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida are launching renewed efforts to break the language barrier between us and our most intelligent aquatic friends. Teaming up with researchers at Georgia Tech, WDP is using a sophisticated new pattern recognition technology to decipher the language of dolphins with the ultimate goal of talking back. It’s a prodigious undertaking, and we probably won’t be gossiping with the dolphins about the trainer’s new wetsuit anytime soon. But on this worthy pursuit to find the submerged Rosetta Stone, every word counts.

Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project, and her colleagues have been trying two-way communication with dolphins since 1998. Success, thus far, has been limited. Using sounds and behaviors collected over 26 years, they first tried playing artificial sounds back to the dolphins. Next, they trained the dolphins to use a sort of underwater “keyboard.” The keyboard had four large icons to which the dolphins could point to and, in doing so, make requests to their trainers. They could ask for a toy to play with or to ride the bow wave of a trainer’s boat, for example. The researchers achieved some success but, as Herzing told the New Scientist, it wasn’t “dolphin-friendly” enough.

For the next phase in learning dolphin-speak Herzing is going high-tech. She’s collaborating with Georgia Tech artificial intelligence scientist Thad Starner on what they call the Catacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) project. The idea behind CHAT is to “co-create” a language with the dolphins using the sounds that dolphins normally use to communicate with each other. Once the dolphins have learned the “words,” the researchers hope to eavesdrop and pick up other “words”–real ones that the dolphins use during their normal communication.

The versatile sound-making abilities of dolphins poses a major challenge for CHAT. Dolphins can make sounds of frequencies up to 200 kilohertz. That’s about 10 times the highest pitch that humans can hear. Dolphins can also shift a signal’s pitch or maintain it for extended periods of time. In addition, they can change the direction of projected sounds without moving their heads, making it hard for researchers to identify which dolphin said what so that they can correlate the sounds with specific behaviors.

The recording device being built by Starner and his students includes two hyrdophones and a data storage computer about the size of a smartphone. The hydrophones are capable of picking up the full range of dolphin sounds. An LED in the diver’s mask will light up and indicate from which direction–thereby which dolphin–sounds are coming from. A handheld device called a Twiddler acts as both a mouse and a keyboard and allows the diver to select the sounds to be played back to the dolphin–that is, to decide what to “say.”

The initial “conversations” will involve eight “words” invented by the research team. “Seaweed” and “bow wave ride” are two examples. The researchers will then use software to listen and see if the dolphins can successfully mimic the learned sounds. If they can, the CHAT team will then listen for new words, the “fundamental units” of dolphinese.

Needless to say, trying to parse out the bare words of an animal language is an incredible challenge. To aid their human ears, the team is using pattern detector software developed by Starner and a former student, David Minnen. The software was designed to pick out “interesting features” from any kind of data, not just dolphin sounds. They tested the software by analyzing a video of sign-language. The software successfully labeled 23 out of 40 distinct signs shown. It could also identify the start and the end of the signing session. It even picked up head scratching. They also tested the software on a person exercising. Through accelerometers worn by the person, the software was able to “discover” the basic unit of repetition–dumb-bell curls–even though it’d never encountered iron-pumping sorts of data. They hope that the software in the same way will be able to “discover” the “fundamental units” of the dolphins’ language. Assuming the dolphins can mimic the words, and assuming the software can recognize the dolphins’ sounds, it becomes a matter of decoding what the dolphins say in between. To do that, the team will have to both identify the fundamental units of the dolphins’ language and associate those units with behavior.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Maybe we think that dolphins are smarter than they actually are. Maybe we think we’re smarter than we actually are. Whatever the case may be, I’m pretty psyched about the CHAT team’s research if only for the fact that dolphins, along with some primates, represent our best bet at ever breaking the cross-species language barrier.

And I believe it to be a worthy cause. Both anatomical and behavioral studies have helped establish dolphins as one of the most intelligent non-human species. Like humans, they have large and complex brains. Through studies with mirrors dolphins were shown to be self-aware, a trait previously restricted to–according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science–the great apes, elephants, magpies, and humans. So they’re smart. And the AAAS decided that dolphins are so smart, in fact, that in February 2010, they suggested that dolphins be classified as “nonhuman persons,” supporting their argument by saying “Like humans, dolphins appear to be self-conscious, unique individuals (with distinctive personalities, memories and a sense of self) who are vulnerable to a wide range of physical and emotional pain and harm, and who have the power to reflect upon and choose their actions.”

To actually converse with a dolphin will profoundly affect, not only our relationship with them, but all of the animals we share this planet with. And besides that, to find out what’s on a dolphin’s mind would just be really freakin’ cool.

[image credits: The Telegraph and albumforjames via Photobucket]
image 1: Dolphins with cub
image 2: Far Side

Discussion — 11 Responses

  • Ivan Malagurski June 22, 2011 on 3:15 am

    Sure would be great if they can do it…

  • Rbrandes June 22, 2011 on 4:07 am

    I think instead of creating new words, we should look for clues into the ‘words’ the dolphins already use. For example, if one were to attatch small recording devices to all the dolphins who lived and trained together in a closed setting, then monitoring could be done with the camera and microphones on the devices of the whole school at the same time.

    With this pack monitoring technique, coupled with precise timing of the the signals and resulting actions, we could learn what combitation of sounds/signals mean ‘left turn’ or similar simple actions. With this knowledge it would be easier to decode the remainder of the dolphin language, by learning one small word at a time.

    To test these sounds and signals, a remote controlled submersible dolphin robot could then imitate the sounds and actions of the original dolphins to see what percentage of the dolphins would choose the desired action in a one on one envirnment.

  • Matthew Lorono June 22, 2011 on 6:59 pm

    We just hope hope to not here the words “So long and thanks for all the fish” from the dolphin-kind any time soon. :)

  • Chris Clark June 22, 2011 on 9:45 pm

    This is very interesting. It is almost identical to the Jupiter books by Ben Bova. In these two novels research teams pick up dolphin language one word at a time and are able to communicate using voice recognition software that translates the dolphin sound to english.

    Thanks,
    Chris
    http://johngalt4u2.blogspot.com/

  • stainless steel rat June 27, 2011 on 6:48 am

    Science fiction has had plenty of talking animals in stories long before Ben Bova. I remember reading a book by Clifford Simak called “City”. In the book there are talking dogs that tell the story of how humans left the Earth and transcended into a different form. I read that story 50 years ago and the plot has stayed with me as if I read it yesterday. It was a good read and it seems that Simak had quite a knack for looking into his crystal ball and accurately predicting some things we have now. He imagined virtual reality and video games decades before they became real. The dogs inherited the Earth after we left and they had robots that acted as their hands.