Long before Dr. Doolittle, scientists have dreamed of communicating with some animal species. Successful attempts have been made with some of the primates and even to an extent canines and felines.
A brilliant African Grey parrot named Alex that lived in the UK stunned researchers with a vocabulary of more than 500 words. Experiments proved that Alex understood the meaning of the words, really conversed with humans, exhibited a high level of cognitive thought and even created new words for new objects that researchers purposefully chose not to identify with the name.
Yet of all the remarkable animals in the animal kingdom, perhaps none is as intelligent as dolphins and porpoises. For many years researchers have sought ways to establish real, meaningful communications with the sleek species under the sea.
Now brilliant researchers Denise Herzing, the founder of the Wild Dolphin Project located in Jupiter, Florida, and Thad Starner, an artificial intelligence (AI) expert on the faculty at Georgia Tech, have developed a new concept designed to breakthrough the species language barrier and establish real communication with other intelligent beings, namely the dolphins.
Although dolphins do comprehend human language to a point—some can grasp more than 100 words, follow human orders, and even use communication devices—no real significant break through in communications has yet been achieved.
New Scientist reports the two scientist's project—the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT)—centers around a revolutionary prototype communications device designed to create a common language that both dolphins and humans can employ as a linguistic interface.
As Denise Herzing explained to New Scientist "They [humans] 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." CHAT is designed to bridge that gap.
According to the researchers, the translation device will incorporate a computer about the size of an iPad with two specially adapted hydrophones calibrated to pick up the full range of dolphin frequencies. The sounds the animals make has a very wide range from those that humans can hear to frequencies 10 times higher—up to 200 kilohertz.
Dolphins can also manipulate their sounds changing the volume, pitch and direction they send their communications. Researchers have also discovered the animals can stretch out their sounds, elongating the frequencies over a significant length of time.
The translation unit will make use of a special software program HumansIT enclosed in a waterproof casing. Divers can secure the unit to their torso freeing their hands to operate the hydrophones and choosing replies to the dolphins' sounds.
The program's algorithms have been created to specifically identify data sets in the dolphin sounds and us an AI pattern detector to focus on sounds that hold potential for translation.
Although advanced technology and the scientific method are being used in the attempt, luck and some intuition may also play a part in whether the project meets with success. No one knows if dolphins even communicate with what humans call words. Translation may be impossible to achieve.
Herzing, however, is holding out the hope that associating behaviors with objects and actions the team of researchers may be the first to establish real contact with the dolphins and perhaps even begin the arduous task of compiling a dolphin language dictionary of sorts.
While other dolphin researchers have expressed some doubts about the project, Herzig believes there's a chance it can work. She agrees that "We don't even know if dolphins have words," but argues, "We could use their signals, if we knew them. We just don't."
The project begins in earnest during the middle of 2011.