• Dr. Timothy Smith

Learning the Language of Whales with AI

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Artificial intelligence may bring us closer to the great dream of understanding what animals say when they communicate with each other. Ever since 1967, when the biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay first put a microphone in the ocean to record the songs of humpback whales, researchers have tried to figure out the mysterious languages of whales and dolphins. Deciphering marine mammal language remains challenging due to the low amount of recordings available and the great challenge of connecting the sounds to an interpretable action.

Human children learn to connect sounds to actions or symbols through repetition. Parents, family, and teachers will point at things and repeat the object’s name to a young child repeatedly. For example, the popular Fisher-Price “See and Say” toy has pictures of farm animals, and the toy makes the animal’s sound for kids to learn. Artificial intelligence similarly learns to recognize an object by analyzing many examples such as human faces, animals, and plants. However, it can take hundreds and even thousands of images to train artificial intelligence.

Deciphering marine mammal sounds has challenged biologists and linguists for years. Recently, the successful application of artificial intelligence in human language translation has inspired several research programs to use AI to decipher the communication of sperm whales and dolphins. Enter the ambitious research program called Project CETI, which stands for Cetacean Translation Initiative. The organizers, including Roger Payne, describe CETI as “a transdisciplinary research initiative bringing together leading technologists, roboticists, cryptographers, linguists, and marine scientists to study the communication of the world’s largest toothed predator: the sperm whale.” (projectceti.org/about).

The sperm whale, according to Oceana.org, can grow up to fifty-two feet in length and weigh up to 90,000 pounds. They hunt in deep ocean for squid, sharks, and other fish for which the whales may dive as deep as 10,000 feet. Because baby sperm whales cannot dive so deep, females form matriarchal pods to look after the calves near the surface while other whales dive for food. Sperm whales can live up to sixty years in the wild. Recent research published in Nature in an article titled, “Sperm whales blow ‘trumpets’ to communicate,” has found that in addition to the clicking and popping sounds sperm whales make to echolocate their prey, male whales will make a trumpeting sound before diving. (nature.com) The sound they make is longer and higher pitched at the beginning when other whales are around than when alone. Because sperm whales live in deep water away from most coastlines, collecting data from them poses a considerable challenge.

Project CETI seeks to use a combination of robotics and non-invasive transmitters to collect data about sperm whale movement and, with hundreds of underwater microphones, collect the whale sounds. The movement data gathered from a tiny computer attached to the whale with a suction cup combined with their sounds will give artificial intelligence the material to look for patterns in the whale sounds. These patterns could unlock the structure of their language.

Research reported in Wired indicates that specific, unique calls between sperm whales suggest that, like people, they have unique names. (wired.com) Researchers Stephanie L. King and Vincent M. Janik at the University of St. Andrews in the UK published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that bottlenose dolphins have names too and that they memorize and can say the names of other dolphins. (PNAS.org) Moreover, when the researchers played back a recording of a dolphin’s name, then that dolphin would respond.

After researchers discovered that humpback whales sing, they then released a collection of them on a record album called “The Songs of the Humpback Whale” in 1970. Since then, scientists have worked on decoding the language of marine mammals such as sperm whales and dolphins. Sperm whales live all over the planet and hunt in very deep water, which makes them hard to observe. The remote and deep-diving behavior of the sperm whale has led to a lack of data to study the communication of these massive animals. Now, the advancement of artificial intelligence provides a new powerful tool to decode whale languages. Project CETI seeks to use advanced tracking, recording, and AI implementation to translate the complex language of sperm whales. Advances in research have shown the sperm whales and bottlenose have names for each other, just like people. The sperm whale has the largest brain of any animal on earth, and we may decipher their complex communication with the help of technology thus allowing us a chance to eventually communicate with these magnificent animals.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.