A multidisciplinary and international team of scientists has launched a project to decipher the whale language And why not? Maybe we can communicate with them in the future.
It sounds like a science fiction movie. In fact, the possibility of talking to cetaceans is something that has already been discussed on some occasions, both in film and on television. For example, it was part of the plot of Seaquest DSV, the 90s series produced by Steven Spielberg in which a dolphin, named Darwin, able to talk thanks to a machine that converted their sounds into words.
All this has been possible in fiction thanks to the artificial intelligence And, if it is achieved in real life, it will be through the same routes. This is what the scientists belonging to the project are currently investigating CETI (from Cetacean Translational Initiative). The name is inevitably reminiscent of SETI, a project that was designed in the 1960s to try to communicate humans with possible alien civilizations. Very daring goals both. But which of them will be achieved first? You never know; but, seen how present yours, the members of the CETI, perhaps understanding the language of the whales is a little easier.
The interesting language of whales
Before talking about the language of whales, it is worth making an appreciation about human language that we will find in this article. The Whales, strictly speaking, it would be the Ballenidae, a family of cetaceans that includes only four species grouped into two genera, the Balaena, to which the boreal whale belongs, and the Eubalaena, whose members are known as right whales. However, in a broader sense the term whale is used to refer to all large cetaceans mysticetes, like the fin whale, and some odontocetes, As the sperm whale. Let’s stick with the latter.
Sperm whales are really interesting animals. They attract attention for many reasons and one of them is precisely their ability to communicate.
In fact, this is so complex that there are studies exploring its ability to speak dialects different, depending on where they live. They have even been seen to have own names for each individual. And also that communication is something that younger animals they learn from their elders, exactly the same as it happens with humans.
All of this refers to the way they communicate. But can we talk about whale language? It is actually a complicated subject. Generally, for something to be considered a language, it must meet three criteria: possess vocalizations with meaning that can not vary, have rules for constructing sentences and that it is not innate, but let it be learned over time.
Each of these conditions could be related to what has been observed in cetaceans, more specifically in the sperm whales. These are very curious animals, on the one hand because of their great intelligence. Brain size isn’t everything, but it’s worth noting that yours is the largest in the animal kingdom. And the truth is that they are really intelligent animals. But, on the other hand, they are interesting to study the language of whales because they communicate with each other at long distances, in the deep sea, so that they cannot be seen. That removes body language from the equation, so we would only be left with the sounds they make, called codas.
It all started in an informal conversation
In 2017, Shafin goldwasser, a computer science crypto expert at the University of California Berkeley, had a curious idea. He had heard the characteristic sounds of sperm whales on a recording and they had irretrievably reminded him of the characteristic hammering of the sperm whale. Morse code. He considered it a funny idea, but at no time did he think that it could be put into practice. However, when he commented on it with David gruber, a marine biologist at the City University of New York, he did not see it as far-fetched.
They both decided to talk to Michael Bronstein, a computer scientist at Imperial College London. They chose him because he is an expert in machine learning, specifically in something known as natural language processing (NLP). This method is used to perform automated analysis of human written and spoken language. But could it be extrapolated to other animals? More specifically, could the language of the whales be deciphered?
To find out, they needed material to work on, so Gruber contacted Shane gero, a biologist who since 2005 has been recording the sounds of sperm whales in the Caribbean island of Dominica. These recordings served to Bronstein to verify that everything what they had thought could be something plausible. Perhaps it was not so difficult to convert those characteristic sounds into 0 and 1, the only numbers that make up the binary system, so used in computing.
A GPT-3 model only for sperm whales
What these scientists are trying to achieve is something similar to GPT-3. This is an artificial intelligence model that allows writing text through training with words collected from the internet.
Basically, what it does is detect the sets of words that usually go together, so that learn how to build sentences. The training becomes so specific that it has already been possible to write full texts without the intervention of a human being. But there is a key point here. In order to train him, they needed 175 billion words. It may seem like a lot, but it’s all on the internet.
The problem is that with Gero’s recordings they only have 100,000 codas of sperm whales. It is too little to train an artificial intelligence algorithm that can decipher the language of whales. So the first step will be to try to get more recordings. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Who knows? Maybe one day we can find out what whales talk about, including how we fall for them. Given how the human being has behaved historically with some of them, they may not like us at all. But if we can communicate, we could tell them that we are not all the same.