Whale of a vocabulary

Team Quantum | Updated on: Jan 30, 2022

A four-member sperm whale family swimming together in clear blue water. The whales are swimming near the surface, and ripples in the surface of the water are seen above the whales. Wavy light coming from above the water is seen reflected on the tops of the whales. | Photo Credit: CoreyFord

Meet the scientists who are trying to chat up the great leviathans of the deep

Sam Neill, as the paleontologist Dr Alan Grant, saves himself and his team from attacking velociraptors in the movie Jurassic Park by blowing into a 3D-printed velociraptor larynx to produce raptor-talk. But that was fiction. The question that dangles before us is whether humans can really learn animal-talk. Twenty years since the movie was produced, artificial intelligence seems to be giving us an answer — in the affirmative. 

A bunch of scientists at City University of New York decided, just for the heck of it, to see if AI can discern patterns in recorded sperm whale calls. One of them, Michael Bronstein, a specialist in natural language processing (a subset of AI that uses algorithms to interpret written and spoken speech), got into action.

Fortunately for them, they happened to be in touch with a Canadian biologist named Shane Gero, who had spent years studying sperm whales, recording their sounds and meticulously annotating the tracks with notes detailing which animals were talking and to whom, and how they were behaving.

When you correlate sounds and behaviour, AI can help decipher the language. The scientists’ Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) aims to decode the language of sperm whales.

They are still a good distance from the goal — the data made available by Gero is about a tenth of the billion ‘clicks’ they would need. The project is now on to collecting more data, this time using gizmos. A report on the project in Discover magazine says they are using free-swimming robotic fish that can reach depths of thousands of feet and record visuals for hours, and high-resolution hydrophones that can record sounds all day long. Using the data and AI, they expect to build a whale vocabulary.

If the scientists learn whale language, would they be able to do a Sam Neill and chat with the great leviathans of the deep? There is no knowing that yet. 

But you know what they say about learning new languages and expanding your worldview. And with learning animal-talk, humans might finally be able to resolve man-animal conflict someday — just talk it out, maybe?

Published on January 30, 2022
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