Cross Species Communication (Laurie Near)

“In which language does one speak to a machine, and what can be expected by way of response?” Lewis Lapham asked in Word Order: The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear (2012). Communication between humans and machines, from the least sophisticated to the most fantastic: the on/off switch, XML, brain-computer interfaces, relies on the conversion of written and spoken human language and sensory experience into binary code. As Neil Turok (2012) has put it, humans are “analog beings living in a digital world” (The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos). While the Internet has opened up this new world to us, and hints at a post-literate future, what of the human experience, and of language, has been lost in the translation? The answer might be found by looking at other experiments in cross-species communication.

Many studies have been done to prove that a variety of animal species, including gorillas, parrots, and dolphins, can be taught to understand rudimentary human vocabulary and phrases. Two recent news stories, one featuring an elephant, and the other a beluga whale, indicate that others might also be interested in starting a conversation. One case concerns Koshik, a captive Asian elephant, who reportedly learned to mimic human speech after being kept alone for five years as a youngster. Fiona Macrae of the MailOnline describes the process: “The 22-year-old male, places the end of his trunk in his mouth and, rather than coming out as a low rumble, the sound matches human speech in pitch and tone.” In another example, reported in The Guardian on October 23, 2012, a captive beluga whale named Noc was able to match human sounds to such an extent that one diver was fooled into thinking someone was shouting at him to get out of the water.

In both cases, what the animals attempted is described as “mimicry” rather than a genuine attempt at communicating on human terms, through rather superhuman efforts at modifying their natural capabilities. Did humans underestimate Noc and Koshik? Why would it be surprising that two isolated individuals from very social species would attempt to make contact with their keepers? Just as the computer requires humans to adapt to its parameters of understanding, so too do we expect the animal world to speak to us using human language, rather than the other way around. This limits the process to one-way communication. Of Noc, Philip Hoare writes that we humans sometimes “can only comprehend by seeing the world as our mirror. Noc’s plangent, if unmusical, venture into attempted human “speech” also emphasises the greater distance between our species” (The Guardian: Environmental Blog, October 23, 2012).

One attempt at genuine listening is detailed in MacGregor Campbell’s article in the New Scientist (May 9, 2011). In this project, scientists are working towards two-way communication – co-creating a new language – with wild dolphins. The tools are hydrophones and specialized computer equipment, as well as common symbols in the environment (“seaweed” or “bow wave ride” are two examples given) to construct a vocabulary as a first step towards conversing with dolphins on their own terms, using the frequencies that these mammals use to communicate among themselves. The equipment will allow the humans to “record, interpret and respond to dolphin sounds.” One of the scientists, Denise Herzing, articulates the challenges of the project: “We don’t even know if dolphins have words,” She elaborates, “We could use their signals, if we knew them. We just don’t.”

What sort of communication is possible that transcends language? Is what we consider human thinking possible without symbols, without language? Perhaps post-literate really means post-symbolic language? In Chapter 13 of Beyond Literacy, Cognitive Prosthetics and the Augmented Mind, Mike Ridley explores Michael Choron’s ideas about the connections between human and machine, in particular optogenetics. If we develop the ability to measure, interpret, and transmit our neural activity directly, in all of its complexity, what forms would those memories take? Would they be emotions, and other sensations? Would they include spoken or written language? At that point, would there be any need for language at all?

Jaron Lanier delves into the morphing abilities of the octopus, and the possibility of “postsymbolic communication” for humans in his 2010 manifesto, You are not a gadget. Language would continue to exist, he says, but this new form of communication “would give rise to a vivid expansion of meaning.” Philip Hoare closes his Guardian blog on Noc the beluga with the statement, “We can hear the whale; but are we listening?” In our quantum future, will we be able to close the communications gap between other species and ourselves? In a post-literate future, will the machines that we have created listen to us?


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