An Elephant in Tanzania Would Like to Skype with You

The concepts behind Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema inspired me to research technology-assisted interspecies communication. What I found was a thought-provoking project called Interspecies Internet .

Interspecies Internet is a collaborative project that seeks to create interfaces with which highly cognitive animals can use the internet to communicate with each other and with humans. The key players in this project include Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist who studies the evolution of intelligence, Peter Gabriel, a musician and human rights activist who has held jam sessions with animals, Neil Gershenfeld, a highly respected physicist who studies the internet of things and works to incorporate computers into everyday objects, and Vint Cerf, one of the original founders of the internet.

The video of their TED talk can be watched here:

The idea of animals Skyping each other and using webchat sounds pretty far-fetched, but is it really? Through non-invasive interaction and research in the wild, Dr. Denise Herzing has been studying auditory communication amongst dolphins. Her years of work have coalesced into a fascinating invention: a keyboard for dolphins with a built-in vocalization translator to allow the diver to understand their chirps in real time.

Scientists like Herzing have found that dolphins have a colorful and varied speech vocabulary. Each member of a dolphin’s pod has a whistle pattern associated with them, like a person’s name, and they can differentiate different objects. Herzing and her colleagues first created a basic, four character keyboard and assigned each character to an object that the dolphins enjoy playing with. The team created sounds to associate to each toy that could easily be mimicked by a dolphin. The wild dolphins saw the researchers requesting toys from each other by tapping the large, easily distinguishable (yet not representative) symbol buttons, and became curious. These dolphins had been mimicking the human divers and inviting them to play their games, so a playful relationship had already laid a great foundation for these interactions. Eventually the dolphins learned to request certain toys from divers, and then reciprocated by fetching a specific toy, after hearing its auditory signal, and dropping it in front of the diver that requested it. Herzing is working on assigning “dolphin names” to each of the divers, and hopes that the dolphins will soon be able to request what diver gives them which toy.

More info on Herzing’s research can be found here

This discovery bodes well for the idea of an interspecies internet. Animals have already shown interest and delight in webcam exchanges with other animals across the world. Peter Gabriel also discovered that bonobos are capable of using an electric keyboard to compose melodies that are pleasing to them.

Imagine if, one day, animals could tell us what they enjoy and what upsets them? How would that change the way we interact with our fellow Earth inhabitants? Perhaps one day the animals themselves can have input in the design of their enclosures. How immensely helpful would it be to be able to have animals broadcast distress signals? Theoretically a person or program could take its location data, run it against construction projects and other invasive undertakings happening at that moment, and we could learn, from the animal’s perspective, which activities are the most disruptive for the many species we ought to protect. A whole new world of communication opens up when we learn to speak each other’s languages. Who knows? Maybe with our nonhuman brethren we could invent and interspecies Esperanto!

~ Gabi J.


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