Jul 1, 2023 - Science

How AI may help humans "talk" to animals

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Just as the telescope proved Earth is not at the center of the universe, some scientists believe once-unintelligible animal sounds may soon demonstrate humans are not the pinnacle species.

What's happening: New technology is allowing researchers to decipher noise inaudible to the human ear — and discover that animals and plants can communicate in complex and sophisticated "languages."

  • Artificial intelligence is opening new opportunities for understanding those sounds — and possibly even translating them into a language we can understand.

Reality check: This is not about being able to talk to your dog, though the human yearning to speak to animals is archetypal and rooted in centuries of mythology.

  • Instead, scientists believe acoustics will reveal secrets about the biological world order that could inform efforts to save vulnerable species from the impacts of climate change.

What they're saying: "When this becomes the thing that the entire world sees … suddenly I think we can accelerate and be a force multiplier for every other conservation and climate action out there," says Aza Raskin, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and the Earth Species Project, in a discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.

  • "The point is not really to talk to animals, the point is to understand them."

How it works: AI can build shapes — like a word cloud — that represent a given animal's "language." Then it can match patterns among a known language and a new one to translate concepts.

What they found: Already, scientists have learned that flowers can "hear" an oncoming bee that leads them to make sweeter nectar.

  • Orca whales speak in dialects unique to their pods, but can communicate in different dialects with other species.
  • Dolphins have names given by their mother which they use in communication, similar to beluga whales and bats.
  • Elephants have a signal for the herd to help them deflect approaching honeybees, which can be dangerous if they get in their trunk or ears.

What's next: Scientists are looking to build AI bots that can communicate to animals in their own languages — possibly even before they understand what certain sounds mean.

  • "We really have no idea what we are going to discover, but it is a vast, vast frontier," says Karen Bakker, a University of British Columbia professor and author of "The Sounds of Life," who spoke at Aspen Ideas.

Yes, but: AI translation could prove a dead end if animals recognize the sounds are not from their own species, Raskin acknowledges. "We're assuming other species want to talk to us," he adds.

  • Then there's the question of whether such research should even take place.
  • Humans could interfere with millions of years of animal communication, or potentially use it for nefarious ends, such as poaching or precision hunting and fishing.
  • Bakker believes a moratorium is needed to first figure out the ethical implications. "My view is we need to get our house in order," she says. "It's a Pandora's box."
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