Flipper Gets MT

by Translation Guy on May 18, 2011

Cross-species machine translation deep-sixed for dolphins. I’ve said for a long time that we needed an MT tool that could be tossed over the side of a boat.

New Scientist reports that “a diver carrying a computer that tries to recognize dolphin sounds and generate responses in real time will soon attempt to communicate with wild dolphins off the coast of Florida. If the bid is successful, it will be a big step towards two-way communication between humans and dolphins.”

Humans have been communicating with dolphins since before I got all those Flipper episodes tattooed into my cerebral cortex. But that communications pipeline has basically flowed in one direction. In the 1990s, Louis Herman of the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, found that bottlenose dolphins could keep track of over 100 different words—if the dolphins wanted to get a herring that is.

Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida, sees a flaw in the current communication system. “They create a system and expect the dolphins to learn it, and they do, but the dolphins are not empowered to use the system to request things from the humans,” she says.

Herzing and her team have been trying to get on the same sea-level with the dolphins for the last decade or so. Now she’s collaborating with Thad Starner, an artificial intelligence researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and hopefully with a pod of wild dolphins to “co-create” a language that uses the features of sounds that wild dolphins use to communicate with one another. Called the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) project, it requires learning to listen and project the way the dolphins do.

“Dolphins can produce sound at frequencies up to 200 kilohertz—around 10 times as high as the highest pitch we can hear—and can also shift a signal’s pitch or stretch it out over a long period of time.”

“The animals can also project sound in different directions without turning their heads, making it difficult to use visual cues alone to identify which dolphin in a pod ‛said’ what and to guess what a sound might mean.”

Once the scientists can listen in on the conversation, they’ll use pattern recognition to identify dolphin phonemes to start decoding dolphinese.

Justin Gregg of the Dolphin Communication Project is sceptical that the team will be able to filter out these “fundamental units” of natural dolphin communication, or that they will know how to use them if they do. “Imagine if an alien species landed on Earth wearing elaborate spacesuits and walked through Manhattan speaking random lines from The Godfather to passers-by,” he says. I can hear it now. “It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

Based on my own experience with dolphin communication (Flipper, remember), I am more confident. I think that unique human lock on language will dissolve because “no one, you see, is smarter than he.


  1. Allen Hansen says:

    Well, dolphins are territorial, we are too, they give themselves names, we do too, they give themselves surname, we do too, they make war, we do too… What is there to learn if they are our ancestors on the evolutionary scale?

    I think we could be surprised at their view of the world and we probably will learn a thing or two. Like how to kill a shark ramming it full speed with our nose…

  2. Kim Sellars says:

    I’m not sure why but, I do know that humans LOVE & adore certain types of animal/mammal species; myself, Dolphins are my #1 favorite of both, if I lived near a ocean that had them, I’d swim with them every day. Yes, I know they ‘gang rape’ the females, but, to US it’s rape, to them it maybe territorial/selective/establishing a hierarchy process.. i don’t know.

    I know the first thing that would come out of my mouth would be… “Please forgive us for testing and holding you against your will in pools for entertainment/scientific/military purposes. Thank you for providing safety and creating smiles to the thousands of humans that truly adore you.

  3. A conversation between a Japanese person, such as yourself Ken, and a dolphin would be extremely awkward.

    • Ken says:

      “Come for dinner” takes on a whole new meaning, right, Judith?

  4. Momo says:

    Being a native of Florida, my brothers and I grew up with this show. We were the same age as Sandy and Bud when it was on originally. It has action, adventure, and it’s more realistic than the tv shows kids usually watch today. Thanks for bringing back those memories Ken.

  5. Pistol Pete says:

    “The animals can also project sound in different directions without turning their heads, making it difficult to use visual cues alone to identify which dolphin in a pod “said” what and to guess what a sound might mean.” – keep that in mind as well. These little ventriloquists would give us more than we bargain for in the realms of translation!

  6. If dolphins can talk will they be able to go to court and say how bad tepco screwed up where they live?

    • Ken says:

      I hear their lawyers are real sharks!

  7. foxguy says:

    I can imagine the first conversation with a Dolphin would be awkward, whether it is a captive or wild one. That said, it would be amazing to converse with a creature other than a human. Reminds my of SeaQuest!

  8. Back in the mid 60s a man invented one and went out to talk to one, came back 20 minutes later and broke up the device told the news they were smarter then us and he left never to be seen again. I saw this on tv10news out of detroit.

  9. I believe it will help scientists, trainers, keepers and Veterinary staff to see more into their intelligence and what more can they offer as the same as we can offer to them. They seem to want to help out and, very compassionate!

  10. I think its programming – its just too ‘crazy’ to consider a Dolphin (or Cetaceans in general) as anything more than a stupid animal to most people. i think its too much of a paradigm change – as soon as people acknowledge these things, they must change their attitudes towards many things, and for some thats just too much to ask.

    And how amazing is what you said regarding experiencing dreams while awake! That would make them inter-dimensional beings! Let that rattle round the mind for a while – huge statement.

    EDIT: Or should that be multi-dimensional beings?

  11. Carol Young says:

    While it would be awesome if they did, I can’t imagine dolphins have anything important to say.

  12. This makes more sense than looking for extraterrestrials…but it’s a slim margin.

  13. They call him Flipper, Flipper, King of the Sea…

  14. If we do end up being able to directly communicate with dolphins I could see them one day being labeled as intelligent genus with humans being the only other one. They could be given their own rights just like you and I have.

  15. Wow, fascinating. I do hope this is true, or that it will be made public as to what these dolphins have to say…

    As you never know. They might have some pretty “politically incorrect” things to say about us Humans poisoning their oceans and slaughtering their dolphin brothers off of Japan,

    35,000+ dolphin “pests” die a year. The ones that survive the mass beaching, are sold to Marine World for no less than 600k a piece.

    Might be something to focus on more than Obama’s certificate. Just saying.

  16. Dont forget, they have sex for fun too – the ony other species aside from man to do that.

    • Ken says:

      Forget?? Never!! But I’ve got to introduce you to some of my bonobo chimpanzee pals, Gordon. They put the “swing” in swinging, if you catch my genetic drift.

  17. Flipper was really the reason that people became aware of (dolphins). Before Flipper, people were out there shooting at them with rifles and bow and arrows, and really had very little knowledge about them.

  18. DewDrop says:

    Wild speculation as to dolphin/human co-sentience aside…

    I wouldn’t say there is a “translation machine” that has been invented. It is more like they are beginning to do actual research on the native ‘language’ of dolphins.

    The computer program they are using is similar to the proposed function of a “universal translator” used in the Star Trek series – more specifically, how it is described in the series that aired in the early 2000s. By taking a few known patterns and comparing them to the full range of speech and making basic assumptions about communication (such as the majority of the noises made have some kind of meaning and structure) – then you can stitch the language together.

    Now, we’re not able to listen to a few seconds of speech and then have a perfectly functioning translator – but by employing this type of device through regular interaction with dolphins, we can come to understand their system of communicating in ways that would be virtually impossible otherwise.

    That said… I don’t necessarily think we’re going to be getting divine insight from dolphins once we do start communicating with them. Though I’m sure we’ll see the Church of Bottlenosed Saints or something of the like spring up. It’s almost unavoidable.

    Anyway, so long – and thanks for all the fish.

  19. Casanova says:

    Just wait until they find out what the dolphins are saying! Then we’ll be in trouble.

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