The future is now: Will AI Allow us to speak to animals?

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As the loyal readers of Liive already know, we, as a species, are at the precipice of a revolutionary era. Machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, is poised to shake the very foundations of how we understand and interact with language. It’s a prospect as thrilling as it is transformative, and its potential is nothing short of staggering.

At the heart of virtually every aspect of life, from the most primitive to the most advanced, is communication. As Peter Godfrey-Smith alludes to in his wonderfully thought-provoking book, “Other Minds,” even single-celled organisms have rudimentary forms of communication, engaging in a subtle exchange of chemical signals to navigate their environment. On a grander scale, it was communication that sparked the cognitive revolution, igniting a leap in evolution that distinguished us as a species. If you recall from our previous exploration of the cognitive revolution, this leap in communication complexity set the stage for the foundations of civilization which we now enjoy.

Cave art emerges as a testament to humanity’s primal desire for communication and the Innovation in which to do so, which marked the dawn of the cognitive revolution.

For our article on the cognitive revolution follow the link:

In this article, we’ll embark on a riveting journey, starting with the groundbreaking advances in machine learning that have transformed language translation among humans. From there, we’ll plunge into the pioneering efforts of a personal favourite project of mine, called Project CETI, a remarkable initiative harnessing machine learning to decode the intricate conversations of whales – something I am so excited to talk about. Hopefully, we’ll have time to investigate the wider implications of machine learning and what it could mean in a more general sense for language translation and interspecies communication.

So, put on your scuba gear and let’s prepare for a deep-water dive into the remarkable potential of machine learning. You might just find that our mammalian vertebrate friends in the ocean have more to teach us than we ever imagined.

What is the Latest in Machine Learning for Language Translation?

Machine learning technologies are now at the forefront of language translation, wielding the potential to surpass the distant world-changing discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which allowed us for the first time to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Here are the latest breakthroughs:

French soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone during Napoleon’s failed invasion of Egypt in 1799 at the time it was a game changer in language translation

Meta’s AI’s NLLB-200 model: This powerhouse technology can translate an extraordinary 200 languages. By comparison, traditional models grapple with a mere fraction of that. With its complex understanding of language context and dialects, the NLLB-200 is breaking barriers in global communication.

Google Translate’s back-translation technique: Google’s innovative approach is particularly beneficial for more obscure languages around the world. For instance, Uyghur, with 12 million active speakers, Navajo, with 170,000 speakers, and Frisian, spoken by 480,000 people, stand to gain significantly from this breakthrough. The potential for Google Translate to enable these communities to interact more effectively within the broader global context is enormous. By employing a technique of translating from the target language back to the original one, Google Translate capitalizes on abundant monolingual text data to refine translations and enhance accuracy.

Multilingual Neural Machine Translation Models: Not strictly a branch of machine learning but deeply intertwined with it, multilingual neural machine translation models utilize deep learning to accomplish a feat that was unimaginable just a few years ago. By absorbing parallel data from a multitude of languages, these models can accomplish translations between languages that have never been directly paired before. It’s akin to creating a new Rosetta Stone for every unique combination of languages – a true testament to the boundless capacity of this technology.

In a demonstration of this power, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley utilized a multilingual neural machine translation model in 2019 to identify a completely new language spoken by a small community in the Amazon rainforest. The language, which they named Uru-eu-wau-wau, had previously been mistaken for a dialect of another language. By contrasting the text from the Uru-eu-wau-wau community with that from other languages, the researchers made this groundbreaking discovery.

The Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe reveals profound secrets of their ancient culture, offering us a glimpse into the untapped knowledge of our planet’s rich rainforest

And here’s where things get even more fascinating. This very method, capable of unearthing previously unrecognized languages, is the one being utilized by our friends at Project CETI. If you’re wondering about the potential of this technology, here’s the crux: it’s not just about improving human communication but extending our understanding beyond the realm of human languages. And as we’ll soon see, this has profound implications for how we understand our world and our place within it.

Who is Project CETI?

Earlier this year, I was left pondering upon learning that a Blue Whale’s call reaches 190 decibels, about 1.5 times louder than a fighter jet and that these calls can travel approximately 500 miles (and that’s only with our current technology, so who knows the real range). What, I wondered, could these whales be discussing over such vast distances? My exploration into the complexities of Orca culture made me realize how my anthropocentric worldview had led me to underestimate the potential intricacy of these underwater conversations. I found others who shared my passion for this seemingly impossible question: Could we communicate with whales? This is where Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) comes in. This remarkable initiative is devoted to understanding and translating the intricate communication of one of the ocean’s most intelligent denizens, the sperm whale.

Founded in 2020 by marine biologist Shane Gero of Carleton University, Project CETI pools together a diverse group of experts in marine biology, artificial intelligence, robotics, theoretical computer science, and linguistics. United by a shared vision, they are harnessing the power of AI in their ambitious endeavour to revolutionize our understanding of ‘Whale Talk.’

Turning the Tide: Project CETI’s Goals and Methodology

Housed on the beautiful tropical island of Dominica, Project CETI is hard at work collecting data on sperm whale communication. Utilizing an array of innovative methods, including underwater microphones, drones, and satellite tags, they are dedicated to recording and interpreting the complex vocalizations of these marine giants. Their overarching objective is to leverage the constant advancements in Artificial Intelligence to develop a machine-learning model capable of translating sperm whale communication. This ambitious endeavour isn’t limited to just the translation of sounds – they’re also striving to understand their meanings, which will, in turn, help us understand the incredible complexities of these beautiful animals.

Growing up to 16 meters and weighing up to 36 metric tonnes, the Humpback is an animal which is incomprehensible in size to humans

In its fledgling years, Project CETI has already achieved remarkable results. They have pioneered a machine-learning model that can distinguish between different types of sperm whale vocalizations and a method to decode these sounds. Currently, the team is focused on enhancing the precision of their model and is working towards the groundbreaking goal of real-time translation of sperm whale communication. Additionally, they are broadening their research horizons to include other species in the cetacean family, which will deepen our understanding of these magnificent marine inhabitants. Despite the challenges they face, such as the complexity of sperm whale communication, limited data, and ethical considerations, Project CETI continues to make substantial progress. Their work has the potential not only to revolutionize our understanding of cetacean intelligence but also to develop new ways to interact with these incredible creatures. The future of Project CETI is luminous, and its progress may change how we perceive and connect with the inhabitants of the deep. I think I speak for all of us when I say I cannot wait to find out the future of Project CETI.

The Wider Impact of Understanding Animal Communication

As we journey deeper into this fascinating realm, I am privileged to have a personal connection to the field through my uncle, Arik Kershenbaum. He stands as a beacon among the leading researchers dedicated to decoding animal communication. His expansive body of work provides enthralling insights, positing that understanding animal communication might just hold the key to unravelling some of the deepest mysteries of the universe. If this topic captivates you as it does me, I highly recommend you delve into his book, ‘The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens.’

Arik is a researcher at the University of Cambridge

To buy Ariks book follow this link:

“Animal communication is a vast and complex field, and we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of what animals can communicate with each other and with us.”

Arik Kershenbaum – The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens.

The significance of comprehending animal communication is vast and multi-faceted. Animals express themselves through an array of methods, including vocalizations, body language, and pheromones. By interpreting these channels of communication, we gain insights into their behaviour, social interactions, and environmental relations – aspects that form the heart of animal welfare, conservation efforts, and our broader understanding of the natural world. These topics have been the core of my uncle’s passionate advocacy for many years.

The depth of understanding animal communication transcends our knowledge of animal behaviour and extends to our relationship with the natural world. Unravelling these complex forms of interaction not only deepens our understanding of Earth’s diverse ecosystems but also enables us to conceive more sustainable living practices. Beyond that, the potential benefits are even more profound. Each communication system in the animal kingdom has undergone millions of years of evolutionary fine-tuning for survival and reproductive success. Decoding these systems may uncover universal principles of communication that could revolutionize our own ways of communicating and interacting with technology.

It is my hope that a harmonious balance between humans and nature can be achieved via Artificial Intelligence

In reflecting on our journey through this thought-provoking landscape of language translation and animal communication, it’s clear that we are on the cusp of a new era of planetary understanding. Artificial intelligence has already revolutionized homo sapiens communication, breaching barriers and bringing us collectively closer together as a species. This progress, epitomized in the advancements of Meta’s AI’s NLLB-200 model and Google Translate, is now being extended beyond our species. The inspiring work of Project CETI, despite its challenges, stands as a testament to our ceaseless quest for understanding and connection. Additionally, the importance of grasping animal communication, a topic dear to researchers like my Uncle Arik Kershenbaum, cannot be overstated. Its potential benefits reach far beyond enhancing animal welfare and conservation, presenting insights that could reshape our relationship with the natural world.

As we gaze into the horizon of this thrilling era, we find ourselves at the crossroads of science and imagination. AI and machine learning are not just tools; they are torches illuminating a path towards a more connected, understanding, and empathetic world. By harnessing the power of AI to decode the intricate symphony of nature, we are reminded of our place within the grand orchestra of life. It’s a tantalizing prospect to consider – that AI could not only revolutionize how we communicate with each other but also how we interact with the myriad of other species sharing our planet, even those whose songs fill the vast oceans. Who knows? As these boundaries dissolve, we might find that the language of whales, birds, or even insects contains a verse in the universal song of life, enriching our own understanding of our place within the cosmos. The future of communication, driven by AI, is bright and boundless, reflecting our shared pursuit of knowledge and connection.

Thank you for reading, if you enjoyed it please consider following me on Twitter @JosephBarber_

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