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A team of researchers at Project CETI (the Cetacean Translation Initiative) are launching what they say will be the largest “interspecies communication” project ever. The target species? Sperm whales—marine mammals famous for their giant brains and language consisting of clicking sounds. And while the endeavor will be difficult, the researchers will have AI, drones, and even robotic fish on their side.
National Geographic recently reported on the team’s most recent progress updates. Project lead, David Gruber, a marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer, spoke with National Geographic, outlining the project. One which he says is ultimately aimed at helping people reconnect with sea life and the natural world in general.
“I’d had this idea that if I could get people to fall in love with jellyfish, they could fall in love with anything,” Gruber told National Geographic. “But there’s something about whales that really taps into human curiosity.”
As Gruber proceeded to study whale language, a computer-scientist colleague overheard the whales’ clicks and said they were reminiscent of Morse code; an alphabet in which letters are represented by combinations of signals of light or sound of varying lengths. From there, Gruber teamed up with his colleague. Several of her own fellow researchers specializing in artificial intelligence joined them.
As Gruber explains in the video above, he and his fellow researchers want to vastly increase the existing catalog of whale conversations. In order to train machine-learning algorithms—algorithms that can glean relevant patterns from datasets—the researchers need to go from small data to big data. In fact, Gruber says there are only a few thousand examples of whale communication currently available. For the algorithms to work, the researchers will need to collect millions of examples.
To collect the huge amount of necessary whale conversations the CETI team is launching a multi-pronged effort. The team will have, for example, an array of microphones planted on the ocean floor near popular sperm whale spots. It’ll also deploy “soft robotic fish” to swim alongside the whales, capturing their communications. The researchers will even use drones to drop microphones into the water from above.
If they execute, Gruber says all these language examples will likely serve as the largest animal behavioral dataset ever. And if the algorithms can decipher the whales’ language, the researchers won’t only be able to understand what they’re saying to each other, but also communicate with them; mainly to see if the whales respond in a predictable manner. If the whales do, it’ll confirm our understanding of their basic language elements. What the whales think about the world with their huge brains, however, will even then remain a mystery.
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