Will We Ever Speak To Animals In Their Own Language?

What if you could eavesdrop on the conversations of songbirds or politely introduce yourself to a dolphin? With recent scientific advances, a future like that might not be too far off.

Japanese tits extract a compound meaning when sequences follow a specific ordering.

An Elephant Never Splits An Infinitive

In 2017, researchers introduced the world to an animal that's particular about its grammar: a small bird called the Japanese tit. In the same way humans convey meaning through word order ("Attack an enemy" means something different than "An enemy attack"), these birds put calls in a specific sequence to communicate with one another.

Researchers gathered a variety of the birds' own calls and played them back to the flock. As Giorgia Guglielmi writes in Science Magazine, "When a predator threatens the flock, Japanese tits produce something called a 'mobbing call,' with the sequence ABC-D. By itself, the ABC part of the call means 'danger.' But the D part of the call — similar to the 'recruitment call' of a close relative, the willow tit — attracts flock members when there's something to share, such as food. When the two parts are produced together, Japanese tits flock together to mob the intruder."

When researchers played the ABC-D call for the birds, they turned their heads and approached the loudspeaker. But when the sequence was reversed to D-ABC, the birds didn't react. Something similar happens with the Carolina Chickadee, which is a good indication that when it comes to birdsong, syntax matters.

The Grammar Of The Japanese Tit

There's at least one animal you can talk to — kind of. Elephant biologist Joyce Pool and a team at the the nonprofit ElephantVoices has recorded thousands of elephant calls, and divided them into categories in a huge database. You can use their hard work to your advantage. To bring awareness to the plight of the endangered animal, the team created an online translator that turns your voice, text, or emojis into elephant calls. "Let's eat" sounds like a trumpet-growl; "I love you" is a low purr.

Artificial Intelligence For Animal Idioms

Sometimes, animal language is too complex to boil down into a handful of calls. That's when researchers rely on the realm of artificial intelligence (AI) known as machine learning, which can be trained to figure out its own solutions to problems rather than follow a rote list of instructions like a traditional computer. For example, if you wanted an AI to identify different dog breeds, you might feed it a bunch of pictures of dogs labeled with their breeds. The AI would eventually learn that white dogs with black spots are dalmatians, so the next time you gave it a picture of a white dog with black spots with no label at all, it could correctly identify the pooch as a dalmatian.

We've told you before about how Egyptian fruit bats love to argue. Researchers came to that conclusion thanks to machine learning: they recorded nearly 15,000 bat vocalizations, then put them through a machine-learning algorithm that had proven useful for recognizing the speech of humans and a few other animals. They found that bats don't just squeak at random. They squeak to specific individuals, and tend to get pretty aggressive to boot. They most often argue over food, territory, and romantic partners. (Same, bats. Same.)

A team in Sweden is using AI to dive into dolphin language. In April of 2017, they announced that they planned to use AI language analysis to compile a dolphin-language dictionary. We already know that dolphins have names for each other, and scientists suspect that there's a specific syntax and grammar to their calls. Researchers from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology plan to spend four years monitoring bottlenose dolphins at a wildlife park south of Stockholm, then use the communiqués they gather to find a way to speak back. After all, without the ability to give commands, how are you supposed to have effective military dolphins?

Can Animals Talk?

Written by Ashley Hamer September 1, 2017

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