A machine learning expert is helping an interdisciplinary group of scientists, comprising of marine biologists and other experts, to communicate with whales. Is this the first step towards successfully interacting with non-human beings?
The CETI Project (Cetacean Translation Initiative) will attempt to understand the series of clicking sounds that sperm whales use to communicate with each other. Using natural language processing, they will decipher the “code” and their computers will send-back the encoded “language” to the animal. So far the specialists working with machine learning algorithms are helping biologists collect data and set the context — and it’s fair to point out that there are millions of whale codas to be collected and this will take some time.
The first uncertainty that CETI scientists face is an old problem: do animals actually speak? Yes, we know they communicate, but we don’t know if they speak. If terrestrial non-human species don’t speak, there is also a good chance that neither do extra-terrestrial non-human species.
Evolutionary biologist Konrad Lorenz, the father of ethology, argued in his 1949 publication King Solomon’s Ring animals do not use language in the true sense of the word, but they instead possess internal drivers that lead them to instinctual behaviours (in which they may become involved, as a group) when they encounter the appropriate stimulus. Thus, for example, seagulls will call when they find a fresh quantity of rotten fish, and a rabbit will “thump” the ground when it perceives danger. Neither of these behaviors are “speaking” but they are messages that are vital to the viability of the species.
The danger of anthropomorphism (the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities) is never far behind, and they accused even Lorenz of it back in the 1940s. For example, we assume a pet dog smiles simply because the dog shows his teeth. But smiling is a human behaviour.
Ivan Pavlov (perhaps most famous for his Pavlov Dogs) cautioned scientists to study the accuracy of behaviour rather than exploring any underlying emotion that a human observer might “suppose” to occur within the mind of an animal, because such an assumption will be based upon human experience, and not the reality of experience of the observed organism.
But research, especially that conducted by marine biologist and conservationist, Karsten Brensing (author of What Do Animals Think and Feel?) supports the notion that we can define the many expressions of animals as “language.” He argues that language must meet certain conditions before it can be reasonably argued to exist, and that in some cases those conditions have been met:
- Language has semantics: certain vocalizations have fixed meanings that do not change. We have identified this in Siberian jays.
- Language has grammar: these are rules are used to construct cohesive sentences. We have identified this in great tits.
- Language must be learned: yawning, and wrinkling the brow are innate actions associated with humans. Some animals might also possess the same type of innate behaviours. But if they learn and practice entirely new specialties, perhaps even developing dialects, then they meet the third criterion. We know some birds have learned to mimic the “call” of a telephone ringtone. And we know dolphins acquire individual whistles they use as an identifier for themselves (their call name)
And it is this thinking that has attracted CETI scientists to study the acoustic clicks of sperm whales. They find that the whale’s clicks are easy to translate into ones and zeros, clicks that machines can readily read and “translate.” We know these animals communicate at great distances and at great depths, so it is fair to assume that they do not use body language or facial expressions (non-vocal communication is important in other species, including humans), which is why these animals are ideal research subjects when thinking about language.
Once 100,000 whale codas have been amassed from free-living whales, the team hopes to use an interactive chatbot that will try to engage the creatures in dialogue. Of course, no one can predict whether animals will accept the bot as a conversation partner, but if any compromise occurs, it will be man’s first experience of communication with a non-human species and it will be vital exploratory work if the human-race ever wants to, or needs to, “talk” with extra-terrestrial life-forms.
Note: The Seal of Solomon, also known as King Solomon’s ring (designed, according to legend, in the shape of a pentagram) gave the biblical character Solomon the power to command demons, jinn (genies) and spirits, and to speak with animals. According to medieval Arab writers, the ring was inscribed by God and given to Solomon straight from heaven.
Words: @neilmach November 2021.
As a creativity advisor, Neil supports other artists by offering advice, examples, and exercises that help boost creative imagination and harness originative potential.
The author is the creator of the fantasy author’s guidebook “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and the host of the weekly Myth & Magic show.
Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/neilmach