Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Flipper Gets MT
May 18, 2011 - By: - In: Machine Translation - 22 comments

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.

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