Scientists Move One Step Closer to an Actual Dolphin-to-Human Translator

A group of mad scientists have been working on a human-to-dolphin language translator and ... it might actually work.

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A group of mad scientists have been working on a human-to-dolphin translator and ... it might actually work. What sounds like a science fiction fantasy, might actually become a reality as researchers say they had a successful result using their new technology in the wild.

Denise Herzing, the director of the Wild Dolphin Project and creator of the Cetacean Hearing Telemetry device (CHAT), had a very appropriate reaction to hearing a successful dolphin translation: “I was like whoa! We have a match. I was stunned.”

While dolphins can be trained to understand and respond to human commands, that communication has so far only been one way. But Herzing and her colleagues have been working for years to try to crack the other side of that code.

CHAT uses underwater microphones to capture dolphin noises, such as clicks and whistles, many of which cannot even even be heard by human ears. Rather than try to translate all their sounds, Dr. Herzing taught the dolphins eight "words" that relate to their environment, like "seaweed" and "bow wave ride" (the wave created by a boat, which dolphins can ride). Because dolphins make such a large range of sounds, up to 200 kilohertz, Herzing’s strategy helped to narrow down that range to eight identifiable noises.

This translation system was designed to work as so: “Divers will play back one of eight "words" coined by the team to mean "seaweed" or "bow wave ride". The software will listen to see if the dolphins mimic them. Once the system can recognise these mimicked words, the idea is to use it to crack a much harder problem: listening to natural dolphin sounds and pulling out salient features that may be the "fundamental units" of dolphin communication.”

The first successfully mimicked sound was "seaweed." A pod that Herzing had studied for the last 25 years made an unusual whistle, associated with a type of seaweed, sargassum. While the sound was only heard once, it is still being cited as a breakthrough in dolphin-to-human communication.

Recognizing the "word" for seaweed is a start, but it does not guarantee that we will be speaking with the adorable aquatic critters anytime soon.  Herzing admits that “We don’t know if dolphins have words. We could use their signals, if we knew them.” With the first dolphin ‘saying’ seaweed, there is hope for turning this signal into an understanding of the fundamental units of dolphin communication.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.