It started innocently enough, as rumors do: A friend of a friend and I were chatting about Google and he said that his buddy said that Google's secretive research lab, Google X, was working on communicating with dolphins.
Interspecies communication is one of my all-time favorite topics. Some true Bay Area heroes like the 1960s collective, Ant Farm, got me into it. It's one of the few things that could be called "groovy" that is not terrible.
The old-timers took the task seriously, too. A guy named Doug Michels lobbied for years to create a dolphin embassy, so that we could start communicating more frequently with sea mammals. His efforts yielded an Esquire magazine article, a show at SFMOMA, and a Rockefeller Foundation grant.
But the embassy never got built. As Michels told an interviewer much later, "It became clear that it was a gigantic project beyond the scale we could accomplish with the funds we had raised."
Michels also advocated building a water-filled, orbiting space station that would house "a Supercomputer and a Population of Dolphins."
That was never built, either.
Nowadays, stories surface about trained dolphins or dolphins seemingly trying to communicate with humans.
But by and large, the last couple decades have not been a great time for mainstream interest in saying hello to cetaceans.
And so, when I heard about this Google X-dolphin thing, I was skeptical. Not because I didn't think people at Google would be interested; on the contrary, dolphins' clicks and squeaks seem like a perfect dataset on which they could run some of their "deep learning" algorithms.
Learning to communicate with dolphins could be seen as practice for any sort of communication with extraterrestrials, which I'm sure some Google people imagine will happen in their lifetimes (because the Singularity will come and they will be immortal and their uploaded minds can travel on spaceships to Alpha Centauri).
So I filed it away for a while. Until I was reading through Burkhard Bilger's New Yorker feature on the driverless car, which was developed at Google X, and what do I see? A reference to CYBERNETIC DOLPHINS.
Next thing I know, I've discovered that a site belonging to Google's head of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has linked to a scientific paper on a "'dolphin speaker’ to enhance study of dolphin vocalizations and acoustics."
And you know, maybe delphic civilization had a little zazzle back! Dolphin researcher Denise Herzing gave a TED talk this year on dolphin communication, and it's received more than half a million views.
In any case, I was beginning to break out into an excited sweat. The narrative was all there: a broad, nerdy interest in dolphin codes gets distilled when some leaders of Google X see this TED talk.