How AI Could Give Us The Ability To Talk To Animals

Humans have been fascinated with animal behavior and animals themselves for as long as we have been on this Earth. BMC Biology reports that humans developed language somewhere around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, making a seemingly unprecedented leap forward in cognitive function and species coordination. Science notes that language was crucial in helping early humans create and use tools in their daily activities, sending the human race on a springboard toward harnessing global resources and building vast community centers, all leading to the modern world that we know today.

Today, researchers work every day to better understand how language and the capacity for communication, organization, and effective planning transformed humanity — and they are studying the same basic phenomena in whales, bats, mole rats, and birds, to name a few (via The New York Times).

Translation services make use of vast data resources to gain context and accuracy in facilitating cross-boundary communication among humans speaking thousands of unique languages. These services have become increasingly valuable and effective, and researchers have been focused on building the same kinds of technological approaches to understanding the musings of animals that share our world.

The ability to speak with dogs or dolphins, for instance, would revolutionize the way that humans see and interact with the world. Suddenly, a whole new level of understanding would settle over the planet, and pathways to a greater civilization could be unlocked.

AI and related products might just be the key to these amazing breakthroughs.

AI and machine learning uncover hidden patterns in big data

To understand how scientists are working toward breakthroughs in analyzing animal communication, it's important to take a step back and think about the advances in computing and data analysis that have taken place over the last few years. The main driver behind increased animal understanding lies in the use of AI and machine learning services (via Wired and Futurism). These applications act like supercharged brains, evaluating enormous sets of data and making connections between recorded points that would take humans years, decades, or even centuries to crack on their own.

Big data has become a buzzword of sorts in recent times. Put simply, big data is the collection and leveraging of vast amounts of information. With the help of these computerized resources, data scientists are able to collect and analyze troves of disparate and delicately interconnected information that would have once proved impossible. IBM notes that machine learning is simply the rapid process of leveraging a computerized brain to "think" like humans, solving problems in the same way we do but with far greater speed. Instead of recording whale or bird sounds over the course of dozens of summers and then listening to hundreds or thousands of individual files on repeat for many months on end, data analysts are now able to leverage entire libraries of captured sound and video taken in every corner of the world and create algorithms to find patterns and similarities in these activities.

Some progress has been made in understanding how and what animals communicate

Another thing that machine learning and AI processes can provide is a sense of context. Not only can a computer find a glimmer of meaning in particular noises or behaviors of an animal, but a scientist can also observe events or responses that follow the initial look, sound, or behavior.

Significant progress has already been made using these types of approaches to animal communication. PopSci reports that phone applications such as Merlin from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are now immensely adept at identifying species of birds simply based on their calls. In addition, scientists are using digitized libraries to better understand how whales communicate to one another, contextualized by the types of behaviors that result after a message receiver has been contacted by a sender. The New Yorker notes that non-verbal communications are essential to deriving meaning in human language and studying non-linguistic elements of animal communication is equally embedded in the ongoing pursuits of researchers.

Additionally, scientists note that pets in the home have been trained to use button arrangements to effectively speak to their owners. Some of these layouts are simple and include conditioning to suggest that the pet wants to be rubbed, fed, or walked. Yet, according to Dogs Best Life, some pet owners have taken this to amazing new heights and trained their pets to use an ever-increasing series of more nuanced communicative button arrays to express more complex thoughts and desires.