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

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.