This summer in the Bahamas, researchers will test new technology that helps humans get one step closer to communicating with dolphins using a series of whistles that dolphins can easily reproduce.
An underwater computer called the CHAT interface will broadcast artificial whistles through speakers, and then, if the dolphins start copying the whistles, will "translate" the sounds back into English. The test is starting small, using whistles for a few toys that dolphins like to play with—seaweed, ropes, and scarves. Since dolphins also use whistles to call each other by name, the machine will also create whistle names for each of the researchers.
The computer will only use human-created whistles for now. "CHAT is not magically translating natural dolphin sounds into human words," explains Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project, who has been working on the same long-term study of dolphin communication for nearly 30 years. "What CHAT is doing is real-time sound recognition, recognizing pre-programmed artificial whistles that we put in the system. CHAT is essentially looking for a "match" or mimic [of] synthesized whistles."
In the past, cross-species communication was limited by a lot of physical constraints: Dolphins often whistle in ranges that humans can't hear, and even lower tones are hard to distinguish underwater. Researchers can analyze the sounds in the lab later, but can't easily interpret sounds in real time. And since dolphins can't reproduce human words, they obviously can't communicate by talking. The new interface will overcome some of those barriers to test how much dolphins can understand.
The tests this summer will involve playing the sounds for the dolphins while the researchers play games with the dolphins, who are wild but friendly; over the years, the researchers have developed a unique relationship that involves some interaction. Since the animals are good at mimicking sounds, the researchers think they may start using the whistles.
Eventually, the computer could potentially be programmed with natural sounds from the dolphins as well. In a separate project, the researchers are working with a team from Georgia Tech to try to decode 30 years of dolphin recordings. "The idea is to use new cutting-edge software tools and algorithms to pull out patterns in the dolphin sounds that we have recorded over many decades, and potentially pull out patterns that humans have a hard time recognizing," Herzing explains.
The interface—or some version of it—may also be useful in other animal studies. "The thing we have not done well as humans is to give other species "appropriate" tools, meaning something that they can use to communicate back in detail," Herzing says. "Many nonhuman animals are good at comprehending and understanding human words or behaviors, it's just that their communicative abilities and sensory systems are not always parallel to ours."
[Image: © The Dolphin Project, Photo by Bethany Augliere]