Posted by: Bystander PJ14 JUL 2011
Dolphins are thought to be the most intelligent animals on Earth apart from humans. But could they actually outshine us? After all, some of them have learnt to recognise many human words, in their correct context, but no human has been clever enough to learn any “dolphinese”.
Studies show that dolphins can learn up to 100 human words and can distinguish between similar-sounding commands. But they cannot talk back to us because no one has any idea how to interpret their chattering. For a start, we do not even know whether their language involves the concept of words.
Attempts at two-way communication have so far had scant success, but a new project, Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT), takes a fresh approach by aiming to create a dolphin-friendly artificial language based on the natural sounds of wild dolphins. Armed with a waterproof computer loaded with translation software, divers may be able to decipher the dolphins’ chatter, then create and project an appropriate response in real time.
The researchers are developing a prototype device that includes a smartphone-sized computer and two hydrophones to detect dolphin chirps, which can be at frequencies too high for us to detect. A diver will carry the gadget in a watertight case. When it picks up dolphin twitter, the device will alert the diver, who can then use the computer to respond.
The CHAT project will begin by devising eight dolphinesque “words”, projecting them to a group of dolphins and working out whether they mimic the words. If they do, the researchers will try to translate the basics of dolphinese by associating these “words” with behaviours and objects. For this, they will also use pattern detector software, which helps find useful information in a jumble of data. Nevertheless, the challenges of deciphering dolphin talk remain daunting.