How long before AI can ‘understand’ animals?

Scientists are working on it, but it’s a rough job.

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Comments posted on Engadget this month


J. Trew


June 4th, 2021

In this article: gear, animal translation, feature, tomorrow, ai, artificial intelligence

The Regent Honeyeaters of Australasia are forgetting how to talk. The songbird’s habitat has been so severely devastated that its numbers are dwindling. Worse, the ones that remain are so scattered that the adult males are too far apart to teach the young how to sing for a mate — how to speak their own language. The gradual loss of the Honeyeaters’ song, their primary tool for wooing a partner, creates a vicious circle of spiraling decline.

Humans, on the other hand, cannot shut up. Estimates peg the total number of languages in use today to be around 7,000. In the US, roughly 25 percent of people claim they can converse in a second language. In Europe, this number floats around 60 percent. In Asia or Africa, bilingualism is even more common as local tongues and regional dialects live alongside (often multiple) “official” languages. But not one person on this planet can speak Cat or Dog — much less Regent Honeyeater.

Henry Cook via Getty Images

Understanding animals is a tough nut to crack. For one, do animals even have a “language?” Even if they do, is there all that much to be said beyond the basics of survival? Probably not for most species, but as years of TV shows like Sabrina and films like Free Willy and basically anything Disney will attest, we really do wish we could natter with nature. The good news is that AI might grant us the ability to reliably translate animals in the next decade or so. The less good news is that it won’t be the Babelfish device you might be expecting.

“If you had to pick one component of humans … that no other animal comes anywhere near being able to do anywhere near as well: Communication is the thing.” James Savage, a behavioral ecologist at both the University of Chester and Anglia Ruskin University told Engadget. In short, talking is what separates humans from the beast, so expecting animals to hold a conversation is somewhat oxymoronic.

If you’re now wondering about all those documentaries you saw with a dolphin talking to its keeper or a chimpanzee doing sign language, then you aren’t disproving this theory, you’ve merely identified the complexity of the question. Animals understanding our language appears to be obtainable to the degree of their cognitive ability. Going the other way, speaking Dolphin or Chimpanzee is a different kettle of (non-talking) fish.

The first problem is deciding what an animal language might look like. “One of the defining characteristics of human communication is that it’s sequential. We have word tokens, words as it were. And they always occur in a certain sequence.” Jussi Karlgren, a computational linguist, told Engadget.

Much as we might hope, there’s little reason to suggest a pod of porpoises communicates in the same way we do. Not least because of the different vocal machinery, but also their environment, collective needs and, you know, the whole lack of being a human thing.