Here’s a project to test that:
Herzing and Starner will start testing the system on wild Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) in the middle of this year. At first, divers will play back one of eight “words” coined by the team to mean “seaweed” or “bow wave ride”, for example. 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 researchers don’t know what these units might be. But the algorithms they are using are designed to sift through any unfamiliar data set and pick out interesting features (see “Pattern detector”). The software does this by assuming an average state for the data and labelling features that deviate from it. It then groups similar types of deviations – distinct sets of clicks or whistles, say – and continues to do so until it has extracted all potentially interesting patterns.
Once these units are identified, Herzing hopes to combine them to make dolphin-like signals that the animals find more interesting than human-coined “words”. By associating behaviours and objects with these sounds, she may be the first to decode the rudiments of dolphins’ natural language.
Justin Gregg of the Dolphin Communication Project, a non-profit organisation in Old Mystic, Connecticut, thinks that getting wild dolphins to adopt and use artificial “words” could work, but is sceptical that the team will find “fundamental units” of natural dolphin communication.
Are there indeed fundamental units of information? What would be the consequence of discovering that there are? Or that there aren’t?