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At Mind Matters News: Can AI help us talk to whales? Maybe. But then what?

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In the real world, if we succeed in communicating with whales, it will be much like communicating successfully with dogs, cats, and horses. None of them are furry people:

A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine holds out the hope that AI can help us learn to talk with whales:

These campaigns, while interesting in themselves, often aim — essentially — at trying to show that animals think like people:

News, “Can AI help us talk to whales? Maybe. But then what?” at Mind Matters News

But do animals have language at all? The question has been controversial among scientists for a long time. For many, language is one of the last bastions of human exclusivity.

Christoph Dresser, Hakai, “Could We Chat With Whales?” at Smithsonian Magazine (October 28, 2021)

It would be surprising if it were really true that whether animals have language “has been controversial among scientists for a long time.” But it isn’t. Everyone, including researchers, knows that animals communicate with each other. What they don’t have is the capacity for abstraction.

Believers in human non-exclusivity do not appear to be especially picky about what counts as evidence for various life forms having languages that are like human languages. For example, here’s a research finding that is supposed to be evidence:

For a long time, scientists were convinced that animal communication lacked any sentence structure. But in 2016, Japanese researchers published a study in Nature Communications on the vocalizations of great tits. In certain situations, the birds combine two different calls to warn each other when a predator approaches. They also reacted when the researchers played this sequence to them. However, when the call order was reversed, the birds reacted far less. “That’s grammar,” says Brensing.

Christoph Dresser, Hakai, “Could We Chat With Whales?” at Smithsonian Magazine (October 28, 2021)

No. It isn’t grammar. The birds just didn’t understand the wrong-sequence call. By the way, how did we get so fast from whales to birds? Is that for lack of evidence among whales and any related species?

In the real world, if we succeed in communicating with whales, it will be much like communicating successfully with dogs, cats, and horses. None of them are furry people. Whales are not blubbery people either. They won’t bring us closer to understanding what sets humans apart than dogs will.


Takehome: Questions: If no realistic evidence of human-like intelligence is found among whales , may we conclude anything? Also, can we stop the cruelty?

You may also wish to read: But, in the end, did the chimpanzee really talk? A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine sheds light on the motivations behind the need to see bonobos as something like an oppressed people, rather than apes in need of protection.

and

Dolphinese: The idea that animals think as we do dies hard. But first it can lead us down strange paths.

4 Replies to “At Mind Matters News: Can AI help us talk to whales? Maybe. But then what?

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    I communicate with my cats but not in the same way I communicate with other human beings. They are intelligent but not in the same sense as human beings. Their sensory experience of the world is different from mine being based much more on smell and hearing whereas mine is much more sight and hearing. I don’t see any sign that they use any form of abstract language to model and communicate information about their world so I think even if we found some sort of “universal translator” device we would not be able to talk to the animals in the way portrayed in “Dr Doolittle”.

  2. 2
    Fasteddious says:

    For any current or foreseeable AI to learn how to speak and understand “whale”, there would need to be a whale willing to teach it; i.e. a whale would have to provide feedback about the communication signals being tried. Aside from a few simple things like “food here”, “swim away”, “my mate”, or ” hello friend whale”, that would be difficult to achieve, I expect. We cannot truly communicate with chimpanzees despite decades of trying and the easier environment and size, so doing so with whales seems highly unlikely, whether by humans or some future AI. The AI might be able to categorize, sort and string together whale-like sounds, but attaching meaning to them would require some intelligent feedback or guidance which the AI cannot provide to itself.

  3. 3
    zweston says:

    Sev @1…so you legitimately think the reason humans are so much more advanced in any sort of cognitive way is just time and chance acting on matter?

  4. 4
    Trumper says:

    I agree- AI can’t really do much beyond simple mimic. Even at it’s best if one could strap on sensory devices to whales and monitored brain activity and any other activity and motion and could map certain sounds to all these things…what then? while some fascinating data could certainly come of all that, it leaves the whale no closer to holding a consciousness as ours.

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