For most of my life, I’ve wanted to be a writer. In the fourth grade I won some contest for a story about a girl who got left behind on a dock when she went looking for her lost stuffed animal and her parent’s boat sailed off without her. She had some amazing adventures, including a ride atop the back of a dolphin. It’s not surprising that the only other profession that has ever really enticed me was marine biologist. Anyway, I’ve always had a thing for dolphins. They’re so playful, so smart, and they have sex for pleasure. I’ve always wished I could understand their intricate language of squeaks and clicks, and they’re clearly great joke-tellers. Now, computers make translating dolphin talk possible.
Like dogs, dolphins can learn to respond to language-based commands. While these developments enable the ocean mammals to display their smarts, they of course don’t choose this method to communicate whatever they think or feel amongst themselves. Scientists have been trying to establish genuine interaction via an underwater keyboard. Dolphins can point at an image to request a food or a toy or an action, but the communication options were still limited.
Since then, Wild Dolphin Project founder Denise Herzing has collaborated with an artificial intelligence researcher to develop a way for humans and dolphins to work together to be mutually understood. That’s when they developed the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) translator, which has only recently been put to the test.
Last August, Herzing wore a prototype of the translator as she followed a pod of dolphins in the Caribbean. As she swam with the marine mammals, who she had previously worked with, she heard her own voice say the word “sargassum” (a kind of seaweed) in her ear. The device detected a live dolphin whistle and translated it. The whistle wasn’t one naturally emitted by dolphins, they had to learn this whistle, along with others. The big question was whether the dolphins would use the whistles they’d learned in addition to their own natural sounds, which it appears they did.
This kind of real-time analysis and translation between species, based on a pattern-discovery algorithm, is so cutting edge that other scientists are trying to “resist speculating” when it comes to its implications. Herzing admits that the whistle translated by the CHAT machine is a different than the ones they taught the dolphins. This one has the same structure, but a higher frequency. The experience also only happened the once, and has been repeated, yet.
Still, researchers are using the same approach with rhesus monkeys at California’s National Primate Research Center. Presumably, if these animals are actually communicating information, rather than randomly making noise, then patterns exist and can be identified and eventually translated. So far, there are 73 whistles in the CHAT translator, and Herzing is anxious to get back into the water with the dolphins this summer to see what they’re talking about. Just wait until they learn to Tweet.