Bonobos, Technology and Language

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When historians look back on this time period, one of the themes that will undoubtedly define the past two decades is the way technology allowed us to break through barriers like language and distance and allow people from around the world to communicate with each other.

Some of the same technologies are also making it easier for humans to communicate with animals, often with surprising results. For example, an article by Ken Schweller on the IEEE Spectrum website describes how great apes called bonobos have learned to use touchscreen tablets to communicate with their human caretakers at the Great Ape Trust.

There are several advantages of using tablets over using sign language to communicate with the apes. First, the tablets reduce the chances of the apes “taking cues” from their handlers. The tablets also make it easier to document the apes’ linguistic capabilities, and new symbols (called lexigrams) can be created as needed and immediately incorporated into the animal’s vocabularies.

Bonobos can recognize and use hundreds of different symbols, and they can understand thousands of spoken words. They are also capable of learning to use the tablets to communicate through observation, much as a human child would, without having to be taught.

For example, Kanzi, the Trust’s celebrity bonobo, picked up on the meanings of the different lexigrams by watching his mother use them to communicate with researchers. As Schweller described it, when she was taken away for breeding, the researchers got a huge surprise:

After searching in vain for his mother, he spontaneously began using her keyboard to communicate with his caretakers. What is more, he understood the spoken words that the lexigrams represented, and he could locate their representations on the keyboard.

What’s more, Kanzi’s son Tesco began using touchscreens to communicate at only 4 months of age. Linguists will quibble over whether or not the “sentences” the bonobos construct out of lexigrams are complex enough to be “language” or not, but there’s no denying their capacity for communication.

In fact, reflecting on the bonobos’ language skills, Schweller writes,

“What we now believe is that language, rather than being a uniquely human trait, is something other species can develop to varying degrees under the right circumstances—not to our level of sophistication but certainly to the point where we can communicate intelligently with them.”

Unfortunately, bonobos are quite endangered. Schweller’s piece ends on a chilling note:

“While the bonobo species still survives, we believe it’s our obligation to learn as much as we can about these extraordinary animals.”

Wouldn’t it be awful if we drove one of the few animals capable of talking back to us to extinction?

Photo Credit:  AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Jeroen Kransen