Talk With The Animals: Dolphin Translator

In 2011, communication with dolphins has become far more sophisticated, with a research team currently building a 'dolphin translator' prototype aimed...

Claudia Cukrov
Claudia Cukrov on May 11, 2011. @claudiacukrov

Scientists in the 1960′s discovered some remarkable things about dolphin communication. Neurophysiologist Dr. John C. Lilly used a number of implanted electrodes to discover a ‘pleasure center’ within the dolphins brain, which when stimulated caused the dolphin to physically smile. In the nineties, dolphin sensory abilities researcher Louis Herman reported that with training, dolphins can understand and successfully respond to around 100 words.

In 2011, communication with dolphins has become far more sophisticated, with a research team currently building a ‘dolphin translator’ prototype aimed at recording, interpreting and responding to the sounds captured from the mammals whilst underwater. Denise Herzing of the Wild Dolphin Project has been working on the project since 1998 and has now joined forces with AI researcher Thad Starner to develop the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) project. Rather than decode the entire dolphin language, the team are hoping to ‘co-create’ a communication format alongside the mammals, utilizing the natural sounds of the dolphin to form a mutually-understood language.  The prototype will consist of a small computer and two hydrophones which together will ’record, interpret and respond’ to dolphin sounds whilst strapped to diver’s body underwater.

New Scientist explains the project;

A diver will carry the computer in a waterproof case worn across the chest, and LEDs embedded around the diver’s mask will light up to show where a sound picked up by the hydrophones originates from. The diver will also have a Twiddler – a handheld device that acts as a combination of mouse and keyboard – for selecting what kind of sound to make in response.

At first, divers will play back one of eight “words” coined by the team to mean “seaweed” or “bow wave ride”, for example. The software will listen to see if the dolphins mimic them. Once the system can recognise these mimicked words, the idea is to use it to crack a much harder problem: listening to natural dolphin sounds and pulling out salient features that may be the “fundamental units” of dolphin communication.

The researchers don’t know what these units might be. But the algorithms they are using are designed to sift through any unfamiliar data set and pick out interesting features (see “Pattern detector”). The software does this by assuming an average state for the data and labelling features that deviate from it. It then groups similar types of deviations – distinct sets of clicks or whistles, say – and continues to do so until it has extracted all potentially interesting patterns.

Once these units are identified, Herzing hopes to combine them to make dolphin-like signals that the animals find more interesting than human-coined “words”. By associating behaviours and objects with these sounds, she may be the first to decode the rudiments of dolphins’ natural language.

Herzing and Starner believe the device will be ready for testing mid 2011.

Wild Dolphin Project

NewScientist: “Talk with a dolphin via underwater translation machine”

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