Fact Sheet

The 'awesome' machine that could let us talk to dolphins

Scientists hope a new computer translation system will allow divers to make sense of dolphin sounds — and even talk back  

Scientists have developed an underwater computer that could allow humans to understand dolphin sounds — and even let us converse with the marine mammals in a shared language. The project is headed by biologists at the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Fla., and an artificial intelligence scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Here, a guide to the research:

What is this project?
It is called the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) project. Its ultimate goal is to "co-create" a basic language that both humans and dolphins can understand, using "sounds that wild dolphins communicate with naturally," says MacGregor Campbell in New Scientist. If it works, it will be the moment we've waited for "ever since Flipper leapt across the screen," says Elizabeth Flock in The Washington Post. Before that happens, though, the researchers need to learn a lot more about the building blocks of dolphin language.

How are they going to do that?
Researchers will use a translation machine composed of a smartphone-sized computer and two "hydrophones" that detect dolphin sounds. A diver will wear the device in a waterproof case, and use a handheld "Twiddler" to emit one of eight sounds, each of which signifies a dolphin-friendly term like "seaweed," or "bow wave ride." Researchers hope the dolphins will mimic those sounds. Using that "call-and-response method," the system will treat the dolphin-made noises as a sort of Rosetta Stone of dolphin language, and thus "learn how to decipher natural dolphin sounds," says Rebecca Stone at Popular Science. Scientists plan to start testing their device with wild Atlantic spotted dolphins later this year.

Don't we already communicate with dolphins?
Yes, in some ways. Captive dolphins can be trained to respond to commands, pictures, and sounds. In the '90s, researchers found that bottlenose dolphins can keep track of more than 100 words. They can even comprehend the difference between phrases such as "bring the surfboard to the man" and "bring the man to the surfboard." Still, "that's kind of unfair on the part of us humans, don't you think?" asks Stone at Popular Science. "Shouldn't dolphins be able to ask for more smelt without learning our sign language or using our gadgets?"

Will this new approach really work?
That's unclear. "There’s a chance scientists could discover that dolphins don't have any words at all," says Flock in The Washington Post. But it's still "an awesome idea," says James Mulroy in PCWorld. "I can't wait to know if they prefer the mackerel or the shrimp."

SourcesNew Scientist, PCWorldPopular Science, Wash. Post

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