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The Internet Is Coming to the Rest of the Animal Kingdom

The Internet Is Coming to the Rest of the Animal Kingdom

Image of a gorilla holding a cellphone. Photo: iStock

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People surf it. Spiders crawl it. Gophers navigate it.

Now, a leading group of cognitive biologists and computer scientists want to make the tools of the Internet accessible to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Dubbed the Interspecies Internet, the project aims to provide intelligent animals such as elephants, dolphins, magpies, and great apes with a means to communicate among each other and with people online.

And through artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other digital technologies, researchers hope to crack the code of all the chirps, yips, growls, and whistles that underpin animal communication.

Oh, and musician Peter Gabriel is involved.

“We can use data analysis and technology tools to give non-humans a lot more choice and control,” the former Genesis frontman, dressed in his signature Nehru-style collar shirt and loose, open waistcoat, told IEEE Spectrum at the inaugural Interspecies Internet Workshop, held Monday in Cambridge, Mass. “This will be integral to changing our relationship with the natural world.”

The workshop was a long time in the making.

Eighteen years ago, Gabriel visited a primate research center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he jammed with two bonobos, a male named Kanzi and his half-sister Panbanisha. It was the first time either bonobo had sat at a piano before, and both displayed an exquisite sense of musical timing and melody.

Gabriel seemed to be speaking to the great apes through his synthesizer. It was a shock to the man who once sang “Shock the Monkey.”

“It blew me away,” he says.

Add in the bonobos’ ability to communicate by pointing to abstract symbols, Gabriel notes, and “you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and very blind not to notice language being used.”

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Gabriel eventually teamed up with Internet protocol co-inventor Vint Cerf, cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss, and IoT pioneer Neil Gershenfeld to propose building an Interspecies Internet. Presented in a 2013 TED Talk as an “idea in progress,” the concept proved to be ahead of the technology.

“It wasn’t ready,” says Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. “It needed to incubate.”

So, for the past six years, the architects of the Dolittlesque initiative embarked on two small pilot projects, one for dolphins and one for chimpanzees.

At her Hunter College lab in New York City, Reiss developed what she calls the D-Pad—a touchpad for dolphins.

Reiss had been trying for years to create an underwater touchscreen with which to probe the cognition and communication skills of bottlenose dolphins. But “it was a nightmare coming up with something that was dolphin-safe and would work,” she says.

Her first attempt emitted too much heat. A Wii-like system of gesture recognition proved too difficult to install in the dolphin tanks.

Eventually, she joined forces with Rockefeller University biophysicist Marcelo Magnasco and invented an optical detection system in which images and infrared sensors are projected through an underwater viewing window onto a glass panel, allowing the dolphins to play specially designed apps, including one dubbed Whack-a-Fish.

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Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Gabriel worked with Alison Cronin, director of the ape rescue center Monkey World, to test the feasibility of using FaceTime with chimpanzees.

The chimps engaged with the technology, Cronin reported at this week’s workshop. However, our hominid cousins proved as adept at videotelephonic discourse as my three-year-old son is at video chatting with his grandparents—which is to say, there was a lot of pass-the-banana-through-the-screen and other silly games, and not much meaningful conversation.

The buggy, rudimentary attempt at interspecies online communication—what Cronin calls her “Max Headroom experiment”—shows that building the Interspecies Internet will not be as simple as giving out Skype-enabled tablets to smart animals.

“There are all sorts of problems with creating a human-centered experience for another animal,” says Gabriel Miller, director of research and development at the San Diego Zoo.

Miller has been working on animal-focused sensory tools such as an “Elephone” (for elephants) and a “Joybranch” (for birds), but it’s not easy to design efficient interactive systems for other creatures—and for the Interspecies Internet to be successful, Miller points out, “that will be super-foundational.” 

Researchers are making progress on natural language processing of animal tongues. Through a non-profit organization called the Earth Species Project, former Firefox designer Aza Raskin and early Twitter engineer Britt Selvitelle are applying deep learning algorithms developed for unsupervised machine translation of human languages to fashion a Rosetta Stone–like tool capable of interpreting the vocalizations of whales, primates, and other animals.

Inspired by the scientists who first documented the complex sonic arrangements of humpback whales in the 1960s—a discovery that ushered in the modern marine conservation movement—Selvitelle hopes that an AI-powered animal translator can have a similar effect on environmentalism today.

“A lot of shifts happen when someone who doesn’t have a voice gains a voice,” he says.

A challenge with this sort of AI software remains verification and validation. Normally, machine-learning algorithms are benchmarked against a human expert, but who is to say if a cybernetic translation of a sperm whale’s clicks is accurate or not?

One could back-translate an English expression into sperm whale-ese and then into English again. But with the great apes, there might be a better option.

According to primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, expertly trained bonobos could serve as bilingual interpreters, translating the argot of apes into the parlance of people, and vice versa.

Not just any trained ape will do, though. They have to grow up in a mixed Pan/Homo environment, as Kanzi and Panbanisha were.

Those bonobos were raised effectively from birth both by Savage-Rumbaugh, who taught the animals to understand spoken English and to communicate via hundreds of different pictographic “lexigrams,” and a bonobo mother named Matata that had lived for six years in the Congolese rainforests before her capture.

Unlike all other research primates—which are brought into captivity as infants, reared by human caretakers, and have limited exposure to their natural cultures or languages—those apes thus grew up fluent in both bonobo and human.

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Panbanisha died in 2012, but Kanzi, aged 38, is still going strong, living at an ape sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa. Researchers continue to study his cognitive abilities—Francine Dolins, a primatologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is running one study in which Kanzi and other apes hunt rabbits and forage for fruit through avatars on a touchscreen. Kanzi could, in theory, be recruited to check the accuracy of any Google Translate–like app for bonobo hoots, barks, grunts, and cries.

Alternatively, Kanzi could simply provide Internet-based interpreting services for our two species. He’s already proficient at video chatting with humans, notes Emily Walco, a PhD student at Harvard University who has personally Skyped with Kanzi. “He was super into it,” Walco says.

And if wild bonobos in Central Africa can be coaxed to gather around a computer screen, Savage-Rumbaugh is confident Kanzi could communicate with them that way. “It can all be put together,” she says. “We can have an Interspecies Internet.”

“Both the technology and the knowledge had to advance,” Savage-Rumbaugh notes. However, now, “the techniques that we learned could really be extended to a cow or a pig.”

That’s music to the ears of Jeremy Coller, a private equity specialist whose foundation partially funded the Interspecies Internet Workshop. Coller is passionate about animal welfare and has devoted much of his philanthropic efforts toward the goal of ending factory farming.

At the workshop, his foundation announced the creation of the Coller Doolittle Prize, a US $100,000 award to help fund further research related to the Interspecies Internet. (A working group also formed to synthesize plans for the emerging field, to facilitate future event planning, and to guide testing of shared technology platforms.)

Why would a multi-millionaire with no background in digital communication systems or cognitive psychology research want to back the initiative? For Coller, the motivation boils to interspecies empathy.

“If I can have a chat with a cow,” he says, “maybe I can have more compassion for it.”

IEEE SR

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