A California-based organisation wants to harness the power of machine learning to decode communication across the entire animal kingdom. But the project has its doubters
Adolphin handler makes the signal for “together” with her hands, followed by “create”. The two trained dolphins disappear underwater, exchange sounds and then emerge, flip on to their backs and lift their tails. They have devised a new trick of their own and performed it in tandem, just as requested. “It doesn’t prove that there’s language,” says Aza Raskin. “But it certainly makes a lot of sense that, if they had access to a rich, symbolic way of communicating, that would make this task much easier.”
Raskin is the co-founder and president of Earth Species Project (ESP), a California non-profit group with a bold ambition: to decode non-human communication using a form of artificial intelligence (AI) called machine learning, and make all the knowhow publicly available, thereby deepening our connection with other living species and helping to protect them. A 1970 album of whale song galvanised the movement that led to commercial whaling being banned. What could a Google Translate for the animal kingdom spawn?
The organisation, founded in 2017 with the help of major donors such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, published its first scientific paper last December. The goal is to unlock communication within our lifetimes. “The end we are working towards is, can we decode animal communication, discover non-human language,” says Raskin. “Along the way and equally important is that we are developing technology that supports biologists and conservation now.”
Understanding animal vocalisations has long been the subject of human fascination and study. Various primates give alarm calls that differ according to predator; dolphins address one another with signature whistles; and some songbirds can take elements of their calls and rearrange them to communicate different messages. But most experts stop short of calling it a language, as no animal communication meets all the criteria.
Until recently, decoding has mostly relied on painstaking observation. But interest has burgeoned in applying machine learning to deal with the huge amounts of data that can now be collected by modern animal-borne sensors. “People are starting to use it,” says Elodie Briefer, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen who studies vocal communication in mammals and birds. “But we don’t really understand yet how much we can do.”
Briefer co-developed an algorithm that analyses pig grunts to tell whether the animal is experiencing a positive or negative emotion. Another, called DeepSqueak, judges whether rodents are in a stressed state based on their ultrasonic calls. A further initiative – Project CETI (which stands for the Cetacean Translation Initiative) – plans to use machine learning to translate the communication of sperm whales.
Yet ESP says its approach is different, because it is not focused on decoding the communication of one species, but all of them. While Raskin acknowledges there will be a higher likelihood of rich, symbolic communication among social animals – for example primates, whales and dolphins – the goal is to develop tools that could be applied to the entire animal kingdom. “We’re species agnostic,” says Raskin. “The tools we develop… can work across all of biology, from worms to whales.”
The “motivating intuition” for ESP, says Raskin, is work that has shown that machine learning can be used to translate between different, sometimes distant human languages – without the need for any prior knowledge.
This process starts with the development of an algorithm to represent words in a physical space. In this many-dimensional geometric representation, the distance and direction between points (words) describes how they meaningfully relate to each other (their semantic relationship). For example, “king” has a relationship to “man” with the same distance and direction that “woman’ has to “queen”. (The mapping is not done by knowing what the words mean but by looking, for example, at how often they occur near each other.)
It was later noticed that these “shapes” are similar for different languages. And then, in 2017, two groups of researchers working independently found a technique that made it possible to achieve translation by aligning the shapes. To get from English to Urdu, align their shapes and find the point in Urdu closest to the word’s point in English. “You can translate most words decently well,” says Raskin.
ESP’s aspiration is to create these kinds of representations of animal communication – working on both individual species and many species at once – and then explore questions such as whether there is overlap with the universal human shape. We don’t know how animals experience the world, says Raskin, but there are emotions, for example grief and joy, it seems some share with us and may well communicate about with others in their species. “I don’t know which will be the more incredible – the parts where the shapes overlap and we can directly communicate or translate, or the parts where we can’t.”