Divers Can Talk to Dolphins, Perhaps Aliens, With New Device

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Someday scientists hope to talk to dolphins like this one. Irina No/Shutterstock

An unlikely partnership between a dolphinologist and an artificial intelligence specialist has led to the development of a piece of hi-tech gadgetry that may allow humans and dolphins to talk to one another for the first time, according to the Independent.

The iPhone-sized device uses a complex algorithm that is capable of making both dolphin-to-human and human-to-dolphin translations. It may soon allow divers to communicate with dolphins in real time, and is currently being tested aboard a boat in the Bahamas.

The device's language-decoding capability has drawn interest from SETI (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and may play a role in one day communicating with extraterrestrials, should they ever be contacted. Dr. Denise Herzing, dolphinologist and co-developer of the device, is already running workshops with SETI on how to identify non-human intelligence.

"As dolphins are likely to be the second smartest creature on the planet, with similar cognitive abilities and complex social structures to humans, this device will hopefully open the window for a great understanding and connection with other sentient beings," said Herzing.

It's the ability of this device to communicate with the other sentient beings on our own planet that is of most immediate interest, though. Ever since psychoanalyst John C. Lilly popularized the idea that dolphins could talk in the 1960s, animal lovers and researchers have long dreamt of one day decoding dolphin communication. Not only do some species of dolphin and porpoise have a larger brain-to-body-mass ratio than humans, but they are master communicators. They understand syntax, and even the difference between a statement and a question.

Despite these hints, however, the true complexity of dolphin communication remains a controversy. Herzing hopes that her device may begin to unravel the mystery.

The device, technically referred to as the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry Inferface (CHAT), is composed of two hydrophones and a unique one-handed keyboard called a twiddler, and is designed to be worn around a diver's neck while swimming with dolphins. It works thanks to a specially developed algorithm capable of learning and identifying the fundamental units of dolphin acoustic communication. Dr. Thad Starner from the Georgia Institute of Technology is the technological brains behind the device's development.

"CHAT is more a potential interface than a translator as it is supplying us humans with an acoustic bridge to allow exchanges between two acoustic species," Herzing explained.

CHAT will initially be limited to playing with just a few words and symbols meaning things like "seaweed" or "bow wave ride," but eventually it should learn more words by listening to how dolphins respond to these beginner terms. This process will also help CHAT ultimately decode the grammar of "dolphinese."

While the language-decoding capability of the device has been widely praised, it has also garnered some criticism from researchers who think the search for a dolphin language is naive.

"[The search for a dolphin language] is a hangover from the 1960s," said Justin Gregg from the Dolphin Communication Project.

Dr. Seth Shostak, SETI's chief astronomer, shares Gregg's concerns. "As dolphins can't pick up a screw driver, they are never going to have the kind of technological civilization that humans have, so even if we were able to pick out distinct dolphin words, we would be unlikely to have any idea what they meant as their world view is going to be so different from ours," he said.

But Herzing is more optimistic. Even if communicating better with dolphins has its limitations, it doesn't mean that great strides can't be made.

After all, if we can't even learn to chat with sentient beings on our own planet, how could we ever hope to talk with aliens?