Machine learning’s next level? “Google Translation of Animal Languages”

Is the use of Machine Learn­ing to under­stand what ani­mals say ‘a green sig­nal towards Google trans­la­tion of ani­mal lan­guages’ in the near future?

The poten­tial of machine-learn­ing sys­tems to detect human lan­guage has result­ed in the inven­tion of voice assis­tants that can rec­og­nize speech, tran­scrip­tion soft­ware that can trans­form speech into text, and dig­i­tal tools that can trans­late between human lan­guages. Machine-learn­ing sys­tems use algo­rithms to detect pat­terns in large col­lec­tions of data.

Researchers have now begun apply­ing this field to decode ani­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, using machine-learn­ing algo­rithms to fig­ure out when stressed-out mice squeak or why fruit bats are shout­ing.

Researchers at Ger­many’s Max Planck Insti­tute for Brain Research recent­ly used machine-learn­ing algo­rithms to ana­lyze 36,000 soft chirps record­ed in sev­en mole rat colonies.
The under­ground-dwelling rodents known as naked mole rats make soft chirp­ing sounds when they meet in a tun­nel. So:

Accord­ing to the study, each mole rat not only had a dis­tinct vocal sig­na­ture, but each colony also had a dis­tinc­tive dialect that was passed down cul­tur­al­ly over many gen­er­a­tions.

These cohe­sive dialects fell apart dur­ing peri­ods of social insta­bil­i­ty, like as the weeks after a colony’s queen being forcibly removed. A new dialect seemed to emerge as a new queen took the throne.

Quot­ing Ali­son Bark­er, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Max Planck Insti­tute for Brain Research in Ger­many as say­ing, the New York Times writes, “The greet­ing call, which I thought was going to be pret­ty basic, turned out to be incred­i­bly complicated”.

Although this kind of study still has a long way to go, this work has already revealed that ani­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion is far more com­plex than it sounds to the human ear, and the chat­ter is pro­vid­ing a rich­er view of the world beyond our own species.

Stat­ing that it’s real­ly intrigu­ing that machines might help them to feel clos­er to ani­mate life, Tom Mustill, a wildlife and sci­ence film­mak­er and the author of the forth­com­ing book, said, “… arti­fi­cial intel­li­gences might help us to notice bio­log­i­cal intelligences”.

Sci­en­tists have shown that these pro­grams can tell apart the voic­es of indi­vid­ual ani­mals, dis­tin­guish between sounds that ani­mals make in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances and break their vocal­iza­tions down into small­er parts, a cru­cial step in deci­pher­ing meaning.

Near­ly three years ago, researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton used machine learn­ing to devel­op soft­ware, called Deep­Squeak, that can auto­mat­i­cal­ly detect, ana­lyze and cat­e­go­rize the ultra­son­ic vocal­iza­tions of rodents. 

Deep­Squeak has been repur­posed for oth­er species, includ­ing lemurs and whales, while oth­er teams have devel­oped their own sys­tems for auto­mat­i­cal­ly detect­ing when cluck­ing chick­ens or squeal­ing pigs are in distress.

Google Translation of Animal Languages

What next? We can expect Google trans­la­tion of ani­mal lan­guages in the near future.

Diana Reiss, an expert on dol­phin cog­ni­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Hunter Col­lege and co-founder of Inter­species Inter­net, a think tank devot­ed to facil­i­tat­ing cross-species com­mu­ni­ca­tion, is quot­ed as say­ing, “Let’s try to find a Google Trans­late for ani­mals”.

If pos­si­ble, Google trans­lat­ing ani­mal voic­es could lead to some seri­ous break­throughs in study­ing the ani­mal mind.

It’s an area that could lend itself to a lot of inter­est­ing new research.  If you can tell what the dol­phin is say­ing, you might be able to under­stand its emo­tion­al state.

So, as Google trans­la­tion of ani­mal voic­es advances to real­i­ty, biol­o­gists will have a pow­er­ful tool for exam­in­ing the con­ver­sa­tions that ani­mals with dis­sim­i­lar brains engage in.

Indi­cat­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that such exper­i­ments might also raise eth­i­cal issues, Mustill said, “If you find pat­terns in ani­mals that allow you to under­stand their com­mu­ni­ca­tion, that opens the door to manip­u­lat­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tions”.

On the oth­er hand, some experts also sug­gest that the tech­nol­o­gy could also be deployed for the ben­e­fit of ani­mals, help­ing experts mon­i­tor the wel­fare of both wild and domes­tic fau­na. Accord­ing to them, this research might prompt a broad­er soci­etal shift by pro­vid­ing new insight into ani­mal lives.

Let’s now con­tem­plate…, it’s not a far-fetched idea that in the future, we might be able to speak the same lan­guage with birds, dol­phins and oth­er ani­mals. Isn’t this Machine learn­ing’s new best?

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