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posted by NCommander on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:22PM   Printer-friendly
from the so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish dept.

A NewScientist article discusses how pattern recognition software is being used to help us better understand the communications of animals, including a program that can automatically translate dolphin whistles (but only if the meaning is already known):

IT was late August 2013 and Denise Herzing was swimming in the Caribbean. The dolphin pod she had been tracking for the past 25 years was playing around her boat. Suddenly, she heard one of them say, "Sargassum".

... She was wearing a prototype dolphin translator called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) and it had just translated a live dolphin whistle for the first time.

It detected a whistle for sargassum, or seaweed, which she and her team had invented to use when playing with the dolphin pod. They hoped the dolphins would adopt the whistles, which are easy to distinguish from their own natural whistles and they were not disappointed. When the computer picked up the sargassum whistle, Herzing heard her own recorded voice saying the word into her ear.
...
Herzing is quick to acknowledge potential problems with the sargassum whistle. It is just one instance and so far hasn't been repeated. Its audio profile looks different from the whistle they taught the dolphins it has the same shape but came in at a higher frequency. Brenda McCowan of the University of California, Davis, says her experience with dolphin vocalisations matches that observation.

Since the translatable vocalization has only been used once, it could be nothing more than a fluke, but if we can teach dolphins new vocalizations with a specific meaning and they actually use them, then we could finally understand each other enough to start gathering the data needed for real communication with a non-human species, which would be an incredible achievement (and might finally force people to accept the fact that humans really arent all that different from other animals).

Related Stories

Another Study Identifies Complex Social and Cultural Behaviors Seen in Dolphins 20 comments

Whales and dolphins lead 'human-like lives' thanks to big brains, says study

[In] a new study, researchers compiled a list of the rich behaviours spotted in 90 different species of dolphins, whales and porpoises, and found that the bigger the species' brain, the more complex – indeed, the more "human-like" – their lives are likely to be.

This suggests that the "cultural brain hypothesis" – the theory that suggests our intelligence developed as a way of coping with large and complex social groups – may apply to whales and dolphins, as well as humans.

Writing in the journal, Nature Ecology and Evolution [DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0336-y] [DX], the researchers claim that complex social and cultural characteristics, such as hunting together, developing regional dialects and learning from observation, are linked to the expansion of the animals' brains – a process known as encephalisation.

The researchers gathered records of dolphins playing with humpback whales, helping fishermen with their catches, and even producing signature whistles for dolphins that are absent – suggesting the animals may even gossip. Another common behaviour was adult animals raising unrelated young. "There is the saying that 'it takes a village to raise a child' [and that] seems to be true for both whales and humans," said Michael Muthukrishna, an economic psychologist and co-author on the study at the London School of Economics.

Also at Newsweek.

Previously: Inter-species Communication Inches Closer
Dolphins Have a Language That Helps Them Solve Problems Together


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  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by calzone on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:34PM

    by calzone (2181) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:34PM (#25173) Journal

    haven't people been doing this with domesticated dogs, birds, and cats for a while?

    --

    Time to leave Soylent News [soylentnews.org]

    • (Score: 2) by umafuckitt on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:44PM

      by umafuckitt (20) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:44PM (#25184)

      Exactly. We have a dog and communicate with her perfectly well the whole time. I can read her emotions and needs, tell what she's about to do and what she wants to do. She can tell when we're happy or angry with her. She knows certain things are banned and shouldn't be done (like taking food from the table). She has learned to look to us for permission to do particular things (e.g. not leaving the car until told) and she's completely clear on the meaning of "no/don't do it/stay put" vs "yes/take it/off you go" and will generalise these to new situations. She makes those inferences from tone of voice, body language, and in some cases the word itself. She has a long way to go before matching this dog [plosone.org] however.

      • (Score: 1) by dast on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:03PM

        by dast (1633) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:03PM (#25232)

        For real! Any long-time dog owner knows this.

        My dog understands dozens of words, reads our emotions and intentions, looks to me for permission to do things, and even comes to me when he needs help with something. He has even picked up the meaning of words not directed to him. He listens to my wife and I talking between ourselves and shows obvious understanding, even when we are trying to obfuscate what we are saying.

        When he was young, when the wife and I were talking about whether he needed to be fed, we would spell certain words verbally out like food (eff oh oh dee), and he wouldn't react. Now when we do that, he knows we are talking about feeding him and he will run into the kitchen, pick up his food bowl, drop it at my feet, and stare at me intensely.

        He can even tell when we are trying to trick him, asking him of he wants treat with the intent to lure him into arms reach to pick him up and give him a bath. Somehow, even though we try to be careful about letting him know what we are going to do, he can tell when we are being fake. He'll just run away and hide in his cage as though he could read our minds.

        It is eerie...

        • (Score: 2) by umafuckitt on Thursday April 03 2014, @02:17AM

          by umafuckitt (20) on Thursday April 03 2014, @02:17AM (#25293)

          That's pretty impressive. Ours isn't that smart, but she definitely shows traits along those lines. I think she picks up small details of our habits. Usually when we leave the house she comes with us (she even comes to work with us) but sometimes she stays at home. She's somehow figured out when we're not taking her with us and she hangs back and does her best to look sad.

    • (Score: 2, Insightful) by moondoctor on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:27PM

      by moondoctor (2963) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:27PM (#25213)

      the communication happens, but you don't hear a translation in your ear. i ride horses and sometimes i do hear a translation in my head, things like the horse going "whoah dude! what the fuck is that!!" and "this is getting fun, let's go faster - you down?"

      an animal translator would be pretty cool. sounds like productive baby steps in the right direction.

      • (Score: 2) by umafuckitt on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:37PM

        by umafuckitt (20) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:37PM (#25218)

        But such a translator is fictional since it'll only be able to output what you tell it to. It'll essentially just be a state machine that gathers a bunch of behavioral parameters, classifies them, then selects an pre-determined output. Likely you will always be better at pattern recognition than any such device. The only reason it's being suggested for dolphins is because people can't hear or mimic their calls.

        • (Score: 1) by moondoctor on Thursday April 03 2014, @07:55AM

          by moondoctor (2963) on Thursday April 03 2014, @07:55AM (#25387)

          google translate will testify to the complexity of machine translation.

          that shit is no joke... they've been at it for decades and it is still rudimentary for documented languages. for it to ever work properly it gets into AI territory if you ask me.

          "It'll essentially just be a state machine that gathers a bunch of behavioral parameters, classifies them, then selects an pre-determined output"

          hope not! that would be useless, as you say.

          i think of this as getting a start on a "front end".

          the "back end" - translating communication by non verbal means like body language, chemicals, ultrasonic, subsonic, etc., will take a lot of time and work. may even prove impossible in the end. doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

    • (Score: 2) by davester666 on Thursday April 03 2014, @03:27AM

      by davester666 (155) on Thursday April 03 2014, @03:27AM (#25317)

      Finally, men and women will be able to communicate with each other.

    • (Score: 2) by mojo chan on Thursday April 03 2014, @03:05PM

      by mojo chan (266) on Thursday April 03 2014, @03:05PM (#25611)

      Cats have certainly be giving orders to their domesticated humans for a while.

      --
      const int one = 65536; (Silvermoon, Texture.cs)
  • (Score: 3, Funny) by dotdotdot on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:40PM

    by dotdotdot (858) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:40PM (#25179)

    ... when this works with PHBs.

  • (Score: 5, Funny) by Tork on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:44PM

    by Tork (3914) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:44PM (#25181)
    I worked on the project, the translator doesn't really work. No matter what we ask the dolphin the translator just repeats the same stupid message over and over again: "Yoh obb low iss pan yole." Useless!
    --
    🏳️‍🌈 Proud Ally 🏳️‍🌈
    • (Score: 1) by Drake_Edgewater on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:26PM

      by Drake_Edgewater (780) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:26PM (#25211) Journal
      Kay pas-uh [pinimg.com]
    • (Score: 2) by edIII on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:55AM

      by edIII (791) on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:55AM (#25276)

      I don't know why but your comment makes me think about watching old Flipper episodes in Spanish.

      It shouldn't be this funny but I'm laughing like an idiot anyways...

      --
      Technically, lunchtime is at any moment. It's just a wave function.
  • (Score: 3, Funny) by O3K on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:44PM

    by O3K (963) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:44PM (#25183)

    I, for one, welcome our new Dolphin overlords!

  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by bob_super on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:57PM

    by bob_super (1357) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @09:57PM (#25189)

    Following that example, when I wanted to teach my children how to speak, I started with the words: ambidextrous, endodermic and Quetzalcoatl. Because boat, human and food are just too complex of a concept.

    Major facepalm: on her first Spanish class, my sister learnt "the nuns are walking in the convent", because that's apparently the most useful sentence for travelers to Hispanic areas.

    • (Score: 3, Informative) by Bob The Cowboy on Thursday April 03 2014, @03:04AM

      by Bob The Cowboy (2019) on Thursday April 03 2014, @03:04AM (#25311)

      Er, she wasn't teaching the dolphins to say Sargassum, she was teaching the dolphins to associate a certain set of sounds with a common object in their environment (seaweed), Her translator device interpreted that set of sounds when made by the dolphins and *that* said in English, "Sargassum".

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 03 2014, @03:23AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 03 2014, @03:23AM (#25315)
        It sure seems like what the dolphin said was unrelated and merely sounded like her artificial version of "sargassum" to the translator. It's like you hearing a people talking in a foreign language and then thinking you heard one of the artificial words you created and tried to teach them, except that you only ever got one word.

        Maybe she's running out of funding for her stupid crappy project.

        If we are really smarter we should be learning their language(s) first not trying to teach them artificial languages.

        Aren't linguists usually unhappy when some language goes extinct? So that's another reason to learn and document the dolphin languages first - whether they are very basic or not.
  • (Score: 2) by rts008 on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:14PM

    by rts008 (3001) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:14PM (#25200)

    When are we going to get an accurate translator for communication between human genders?

    It is obvious to someone who has been married for a while that the current 'translator' is FUBAR'd.

    • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:53PM

      by bob_super (1357) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:53PM (#25228)

      The prototype is stored next to the Ark and the Grail. They are hidden under a pile of nuclear launch codes, right next to working designs for time travel.
      I think the closet says "beware of the leopard", too.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 03 2014, @07:45AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 03 2014, @07:45AM (#25382)

        They are hidden under a pile of nuclear launch codes

        00000000?

  • (Score: 1) by Hell_Rok on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:23PM

    by Hell_Rok (2527) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:23PM (#25207) Homepage

    So long and thanks for all the fish!

    • (Score: 2) by maxwell demon on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:55PM

      by maxwell demon (1608) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:55PM (#25229) Journal

      "Its audio profile looks different from the whistle they taught the dolphins it has the same shape but came in at a higher frequency."

      The difference in frequency is not arbitrary, it really is a different word: It no longer means "Sargassum", it means "fish". I bet they didn't yet figure out how to translate "So long and thanks for all the".

      --
      The Tao of math: The numbers you can count are not the real numbers.
  • (Score: 1) by black6host on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:50PM

    by black6host (3827) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:50PM (#25225) Journal

    ...humans aren't really all that different from animals...

    Guess what? We are animals. Plain and simple. Perhaps advanced, in our eyes, but animals all the same.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 04 2014, @07:33AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 04 2014, @07:33AM (#26084)

      Slightly biologically advanced (brains)
      Hugely culturally advanced

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:51PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 02 2014, @10:51PM (#25226)

    "Its audio profile looks different from the whistle they taught the dolphins it has the same shape but came in at a higher frequency. "

    This is a well known dolphin pronunciation of their word for sarcasm. Dolphin humor at its best.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by mendax on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:07PM

    by mendax (2840) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:07PM (#25233)

    Interspecies communication is a fact with me. My evil black cat lets me know when she needs something. She tells me when she's out of food, when she's out of water, when she wants petted, when she wants to play, when she wants some of my Greek yogurt, and when she is pissed at me. And I am able to tell her when I want her to come to me so I can pet her. And as any cat owner can tell you, the cat is much better at communicating with her human pet than vice versa. While it's difficult to train a cat, the cat has no difficulty in training her pet human.

    --
    It's really quite a simple choice: Life, Death, or Los Angeles.
    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:31PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:31PM (#25244)

      I think that most cats understand just fine, they just don't care all that much what you want them to do.

    • (Score: 1) by Ethanol-fueled on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:30AM

      by Ethanol-fueled (2792) on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:30AM (#25266) Homepage

      Feeding a dog or cat human food -- Not. Even. Once. It has the same effect that introducing your human roommate to crack has -- you're completely at their mercy until their next hit. They'll chew up your baseboards, scratch up your couch, threaten you, shit on your bedroom doorstep, loudly beg all night; and all for that next hit that they'll be jumping all over you for next time you fire up that stove or bring in that bag.

      • (Score: 1) by datapharmer on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:51AM

        by datapharmer (2702) on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:51AM (#25273)

        That's not really true. We have a couple dogs and they occasionally get a bite of one of our snacks or a bit of human food and they are very well behaved. They know they have to wait patiently and quietly and it will be offered.

    • (Score: 2) by combatserver on Thursday April 03 2014, @01:54AM

      by combatserver (38) on Thursday April 03 2014, @01:54AM (#25289)

      Your cat is in my house. Oh, wait, that one is mine. Sorry.

      But seriously, no great wonder that the Egyptians worshiped cats--they seem to possess a level of intelligence beyond any other species, including ourselves.

      Example:

      I once went out to my back deck to read, and immediately noticed my cat sitting in the middle of the yard, under a long branch from a nearby tree. Parked on that branch was a large, black raven. The two of them barely gave me notice as they conversed.--there were obvious challenge/response implied by tone shifts, waiting for the other to finish speaking, emphasis on certain "words" (such as being accompanied by both a wingflap and an increase in volume) and they did so for nearly twenty minutes. There were long, thoughtful pauses. There was what appeared to be the only repeating of each others vocalizations--their parting sounds, as the raven flew off in a shared "goodbye". I had plenty of time to go inside and get my daughter to come watch the last ten minutes of the conversation.

      I have zero idea of what they discussed, as the entire exchange was in a series of sounds that I had never heard either species make--it is best described as being a mix of their normal "languages". My cat wasn't exactly making croaking noises like a raven, but rather a cat approximation of those noises.

      We are an arrogant species, thinking only ourselves capable of complex thought and action.

      --
      I hope I can change this later...
      • (Score: 2) by mendax on Thursday April 03 2014, @04:47AM

        by mendax (2840) on Thursday April 03 2014, @04:47AM (#25339)

        I forgot to mention that my evil cat performs trans-species communication in a couple other ways.

        Because she's a black cat, beautiful, and quite furry, she puts off these vibes which can be interpreted as being a form of evil. These vibes draw me to her, urging me to pet her. But if I'm not careful, those claws will come and and she'll take a swipe at me. I have the scars to prove it. And if that is not enough, she stole my soul years ago and refuses to give it back, making me her prisoner.

        --
        It's really quite a simple choice: Life, Death, or Los Angeles.
    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 03 2014, @02:49AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 03 2014, @02:49AM (#25307)
      My cats understand me perfectly.

      They just don't much care for humans in genral. Can't honestly say i disagree with them on that point either. We're loud, destructive, erratic, and far too busy to ever really relax.

      And if they had thumbs they wouldn't even tolerate us for very long at all. ( i understand they are making strides on this point. and in another 10,000 years will have the problem solved.)
    • (Score: 1) by kbahey on Thursday April 03 2014, @04:26AM

      by kbahey (1147) on Thursday April 03 2014, @04:26AM (#25336) Homepage

      Cat owner here ...

      My cat is addicted to the laser pointer. Several times every day, he will come near me, and sit staring at me constantly. He does not meow, does not touch me. Just stares at me.

      This is his way of saying "Come on, use that thing next to you".

  • (Score: 2) by dx3bydt3 on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:31PM

    by dx3bydt3 (82) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:31PM (#25243)

    The researchers are essentially teaching the dolphins a different language, using sounds they are able to reproduce. What will be more interesting will be if the researchers are able to nail down some of the meanings of the sounds the dolphins make by themselves without being taught.

    • (Score: 2) by GreatAuntAnesthesia on Thursday April 03 2014, @10:17AM

      by GreatAuntAnesthesia (3275) on Thursday April 03 2014, @10:17AM (#25436) Journal

      > The researchers are essentially teaching the dolphins a different language, using sounds they are able to reproduce.

      If we could teach a dolphin a sufficiently-sophisticated language that they share with humans (and assuming the dolphin is then smart enough to act as translator), then that becomes a bridge to the native dolphin language(s).

      Researcher (speaking human-invented click-whistle language): "Hey Flipper, what's the dolphin word for "swim"?

      Dolphin: "Oh, that's easy, it's "click-squeak-whistle"

      Researcher notes it down.

      Dolphin: "You have to mind my accent though, down south they tend to say click-squeeeak-whistle, or sometimes use a different word altogether. And of course that's an irregular verb, so it can be a bit tricky to conjugate depending on the number and genders of the subject and object. And of course, don't forget to change the word again depending on whether you're using it passively or as a subjunctive or whatever, and then you have all the different tenses..."

      Researcher: Fuck this, I'm going back to chimps.

  • (Score: 1) by jackb_guppy on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:33PM

    by jackb_guppy (3560) on Wednesday April 02 2014, @11:33PM (#25245)

    Since the translatable vocalization has only been used once, it could be nothing more than a fluke,

    Is that not paart of the tail?
    Must be like "Who's on First?"

  • (Score: 1) by Bartman12345 on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:13AM

    by Bartman12345 (1317) on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:13AM (#25260)

    As much as I like the idea of verbally communicating with another species, I just don't find this compelling. Our budgie repeats sounds he has been taught and his brain is the size of a pea.

    If the dolphin had a bit of seaweed in its mouth and then made the "sargassum" sound, THAT would be worthy of note, especially if it was able to repeat the behaviour.

  • (Score: 2) by tathra on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:26AM

    by tathra (3367) on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:26AM (#25264)

    perhaps the choice of title was bad (the character limit usually gives me the most problems with submissions), since of course we communicate with animals all the time, but being able to have an actual conversation with a non-human species will be one of the more impressive accomplishments of the human race. what they're doing with dolphins is probably the kind of thing we'll need to do to communicate with extraterrestrials (if they exist and if we ever encounter them) since the syntax, grammar, etc, will likely be completely different from anything seen on earth (but at least they'd be able to point at stuff and say the word for it so we could get some common understanding quicker).

    this work wont ever lead to being able to ask your cat or dog how their day was, but being able to converse and ask for input from animals with complex languages could have all kinds of benefits. this is the kind of stuff that really could change the world.

  • (Score: 2) by TrumpetPower! on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:27AM

    by TrumpetPower! (590) <ben@trumpetpower.com> on Thursday April 03 2014, @12:27AM (#25265) Homepage

    I know of a certain gorilla [wikipedia.org] who might like to have a word with the submitter of the article.

    Cheers,

    b&

    --
    All but God can prove this sentence true.
  • (Score: 1) by gznork26 on Thursday April 03 2014, @02:05AM

    by gznork26 (1159) on Thursday April 03 2014, @02:05AM (#25290) Homepage Journal

    The final, bizarre season of the US TV series "Seaquest DSV" could have been expunged so the series could right itself by using a plot device that was already in the series: a dolphin translator for Darwin. I imagine the beginning of the fictional continuation of the series starting with a close-up of the dolphin saying, "Darwin have bad dream!" and then they can resume where there at the end of TWO seasons earlier.

    Hey, I can also craft a sequel to Forbidden Planet: when they watched the planet blow up is was just the Krell machine making it look that way to anyone in that specific direction. The question is then, what did the Krell do after that? Speaking of which, I did write a Krell's version of that happened in 2007...

    http://klurgsheld.wordpress.com/2007/09/18/short-s tory-singularity-of-soul/ [wordpress.com]

    --
    Khipu were Turing complete.