Researchers Seek to Communicate with Dolphins using new Language

That dolphins are intelligent mammals has been widely accepted for many years, but now researchers are hoping to demonstrate that intelligence by collaborating with dolphins to co-create a language which will enable inter-species communication for the first time.

According to a report in New Scientist, divers off the coast of Florida will soon be swimming with dolphins while carrying a computer about the size of a smartphone which will attempt to decode dolphin noises and generate real time responses selected by the diver with the use of a ‘twiddler’.

Captive dolphins have long been shown to be gifted communicators, communicating with humanity via both pictures and sounds. Researches have discovered that the mammals can acquire a vocabulary of 100 words or so and, more excitingly, even grasp elements of syntax.

The New Scientist report cites Louis Herman’s research at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu in the 1990s – where it was discovered that not only could a bottlenose dolphin understand 100 words, but it could also understand the effects of changing the order of words in a sentence (for example, the difference in meaning between “bring the surfboard to the man” and “bring the man to the surfboard”).

Of course, previous attempts at communication have centered on teaching dolphins to recognize human language or pictures. We have created systems and expected dolphins to learn them, but now the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida are focusing their efforts on perfecting software which detects patterns in data sets in the hope that it will effectively enable them to translate the dolphins’ own language.

The Wild Dolphin Project is working with the Georgia Institute of Technology to co-create a language which uses sounds already employed by dolphins in their communication. Direct communication in a Dr. Doolittle style will always be impossible, as dolphins produce sounds up to 10 times higher than the highest pitch detectable by the human ear, so electronics will always have to be an intermediary to compensate for their ultrasonic range.

The Dolphin Communication Project’s Justin Gregg suspects that the team will find it very hard to find the “fundamental units” of dolphin communication. If the software used by the Wild Dolphin Project can find patterns and decode some dolphin signals, there will still be little in the way of contextual clues as to their meaning, so it will be many years before man can talk to the animals…

The irony of this news is that it comes almost exactly ten years after the tragic death of the brilliant Douglas Adams, who suggested in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that dolphins were the second most intelligent life forms on Earth (ahead of humans and behind mice, obviously). How wonderfully apt would it be if the first direct inter-species communication between man and dolphin was “So long, and thanks for all the fish”?