Well if are ever going to learn to communicate with another species, it might as well be whales. This Monday a team of scientists announced a five-year plan for a cutting-edge research project to try and decipher communications between sperm whales. The project has been aptly named Cetacean Translation Initiative or Project CETI.
The scientists said that they’ll be building upon the works of Shane Gero, a Canadian biologist and National Geographic Explorer who has been studying whales for over 13 years. But not just that, they’ll be making use of experts from fields including linguistics, robotics, machine learning, and camera engineering.
The main question is, do whales even talk to each other? The answer is yes. The most exciting example is from Gero himself. In 2008, he saw two male sperm whale babies go at it with each other for 40 minutes. Speaking in clicks, which they make in a rhythmic series called codas.
So by relying on recordings of multiple codas, this group of scientists is working at building specialized video and audio recording devices and discover the overall architecture of how whale lingo works. Is there any syntax or grammar to how they talk? All this data will then be processed using natural language processing or NLP techniques. If Artificial Intelligence can translate one language to another, I’m sure it can translate whale language.
Jacob Andreas, A NLP expert at MIT and also a Project CETI member said that “With whales, the big question is whether any of this stuff is even present. Are there minimal units inside this communication system that behave like language, and are there rules for putting them together?”.
The CETI teams have already established a partnership with Dominica to deploy their state-of-the-art whale monitoring equipment in the country’s water. They have spent a whole year making a huge array of high-resolution underwater sensors that will be able to capture video and record sound 24 hours a day across all of the whale study areas in Dominica.
Maybe the whales know where the lost city of Atlantis is? Guess we’ll have to wait five years to actually find out.