Pattern-seeking artificial intelligence promises a new way to decode animal languages from dog to whale. Our relationship with our furry and flippered friends may never be the same
16 December 2020
RENOWNED LSD proponent John Lilly’s attempts to speak with dolphins were certainly inventive. In experiments over decades, he variously plied the animals with his favourite drug, flooded a house to allow a human to live side by side with one and even tried to commune with them telepathically.
His failure has shared the fate of most efforts to do a Dr Dolittle and talk to the animals. The orthodox position is that human language – the sort that allows us to exchange pleasantries about the weather or discuss abstract concepts such as the price of fish – is our sole preserve. If you have ever dreamed of listening to a whale’s tales of the deep ocean or asking your dog why it howls at the vacuum cleaner, dream on.
Or, perhaps, wake up to a coming reality. Some researchers think that soon we could finally break through the human-animal language barrier, a belief fuelled not by psychedelic optimism, but by the data-crunching smarts of artificial intelligence. Our relationship with the animal world may never be the same again.
AI is good at language. Today, our email services can complete sentences for us, our browsers automatically translate web pages and voice assistants decode our commands. Earlier this year, research company OpenAI released a system called GPT-3 that can write compelling prose from scratch.
Decoding animal communication is just a logical next step, says Michael Bronstein at Imperial College London. “I think it’s the right time, with the right data and with the right expertise, to possibly solve this problem.” The latest AIs learn linguistic patterns from huge amounts of human-supplied language data, without any clue how …