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Dolphins Talk Back?
April 1, 2014 - By: - In: In the News / Awards, Language - Comments Off on Dolphins Talk Back?

“Seaweed” is the first word translated (in real time) by “Chat,” an new and improved dolphin machine translation tool. Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project, used a specially designed “Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry Translation” tool in order to learn what dolphins are whistling about in the wild.

Herzing told New Scientist that it was the first time that the dolphin translator prototype has managed to translate a dolphin whistle. ‘I was like whoa! We have a match. I was stunned,’ the Florida-based researcher said.

The Chat system was designed by Thad Starner, the same Georgia Institute of Technology scientist behind Google’s glasses. A driver straps the Chat touchpad to an arm whenever swimming with the dolphins. Starner was thinking ahead when he made them waterproof. Four symbols displayed on the device correspond to a specific sound and object that the dolphins can interact with. Sounds are played through a speaker and underwater microphones pick up any dolphin back-talk.

The dolphin squeaked “seaweed” just that once, and the context wasn’t observed, so researchers can’t say how the term was used.  The expression  was familiar to Herzing, since she had made up that sound to teach to the pod she has swum with for more than 25 years. The whistles used by human trainers are different than the sounds dolphins make naturally.  The researchers introduced these human-invented sounds to establish a dialogue to help understand how dolphins communicate with each other. .

Chat uses pattern-discovery algorithms, which are designed to analyze elements of the dolphin’s whistle and extract features that might go undetected by human ears. Sophisticated  information-processing tools allow analysis of huge data sets to point out patterns previously unknown. Researchers hope that the system will also reveal the meaning behind the dolphin’s own natural communications , reports Sarah Griffiths in MailOnline. “They have managed to pinpoint eight different characteristics in 73 different whistles, matching them with mother-calf interactions and hope to confirm two-way communication between humans and dolphins this summer.”

People and dolphins have been communicating for centuries, or so the legends say. Since the 1960s, humans have been communicating with captive dolphins using images and sounds, demonstrating that dolphins can understand instructions. But it’s always been a one-way street. With Chat, the dolphins are getting a chance to talk back.


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