Coming Soon… Dolphin Translation?

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We know that dolphins have extremely advanced communication skills. In captivity, for example, they’ve been able to learn to respond to a large number of verbal commands, and even seem to understand syntax, or how word order determines meaning.

What we’ve not yet been able to do is to have a two-way conversation with them. As the Wild Dolphin Project’s Denise Herzing explained to the New Scientist, researchers have been able to:

“create a system and expect the dolphins to learn it, and they do, but the dolphins are not empowered to use the system to request things from the humans.”

Like a modern-day Dot, Herzing wants the dolphins to talk back. Herzing has already built an underwater keyboard that allows wild dolphins to make simple requests from humans. Now, she’s attempting something a good deal more ambitious: decoding and reproducing their “language” of ultrasonic squeals and squeaks, so that someday we can actually “speak” each other.

To do this, she’s teamed up with the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Thad Starner, an artificial intelligence researcher and his students. The Georgia Institute of Technology team will build a small, waterproof computer capable of recognizing and playing back the sounds that dolphins use to communicate among themselves. The first step of the project will then be to teach the dolphins “words” that the human researchers have made up to refer to different toys and games that the wild dolphins already like to play with humans.

This is basically the same thing that Herzing did with her underwater keyboard, except that instead of trying to get the dolphins to press a button with a symbol on it, the researchers are trying to get them to make the appropriate sounds. If the dolphins start using the “words” created by the researchers, that will enable the computer to start breaking down their language and looking for patterns. Hopefully, the system will eventually be able to “crack the code,” allowing humans and dolphins to communicate for real.

Sound far-fetched? Justin Gregg of the Dolphin Communication Project thinks so.  As he explained to the New Scientist, even if we manage to decode some of their language, that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to communicate effectively:  “Imagine if an alien species landed on Earth wearing elaborate spacesuits and walked through Manhattan speaking random lines from The Godfather to passers-by.”

But say we do manage to talk to the dolphins…What would they have to say? For the sake of the planet, let’s hope it’s not “So long, and thanks for all the fish!”