In a recent interview with Vox, Karen Bakker – an expert in Digital Innovation at the University of British Columbia – has argued that humans could soon communicate with animals, as groundbreaking artificial intelligence tools are designed to decode patterns in non-human sounds, such as the waggle dance of honeybees, the low-frequency noises of elephants, or the clicking made by whales. Yet, according to Bakker, such innovations can raise ethical dilemmas, since they could also be used to manipulate – rather than merely understand – wildlife.
For a long time, humans have sought to find ways of communicating with animals. While just a few decades ago, such attempts would rather belong to a science fiction movie, recent scientific and technological developments have now brought them closer to reality. For instance, in 2018, a team of researchers from the Dahlem Center for Machine Learning and Robotics in Germany has designed the RoboBee, an AI tool that mimics the waggle dance of bees, which is used by these insects to relay information to one another. This robot turned out to be so successful that some of the bees started to follow directions from it, such as where to move within their hive.
Other such attempts include the Project CETI (the Cetacean Translation Initiative), which uses advanced machine learning techniques to decipher the sounds of sperm whales, one of the world’s most enigmatic oceanic species, or the research of Katie Payne, an expert in Bioacoustics at Cornell University who uses artificial intelligence to pick up the infrasonic sounds produced by elephants.
Although humans have communicated with animals in the past too, they usually did it from a human-centered viewpoint, such as teaching primates sign language. By using AI, scientists now hope to use the animals’ own language to communicate with them. “What [these researchers] are doing is not trying to teach those species human language, but rather compiling, essentially, dictionaries of signals and then attempting to understand what those signals mean within those species,” Bakker explained.
However, such attempts lead to significant ethical conundrums, depending upon how they will be used. Thus, enabling humans to speak with different animal species could create a “deeper sense of kinship, or a sense of dominion and manipulative ability to domesticate wild species that we’ve never as humans been able to previously control,” she concluded.
Professor Bakker explained in more detail these new technological developments in her new book, The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants (2022).
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