If you think about it, what I’m doing right now is kinda magic.
My lungs inflate with air, and as I push that air out of my lungs, I tighten some muscles in my throat that push together a couple flaps of cartilage that vibrate at various frequencies, and I then manipulate the shape of my mouth with my jaw, lips, and tongue to create a series of different sounds. Then when you hear these sounds, your brain organizes these sounds in a way that create images, ideas, thoughts, concepts, even feelings.
We can leave out the part where a microphone picks up the vibrations in the air and encodes them into digital signals that then travel all over the world, we don’t need to go there.
But the point is, human communication is insanely complex and kind-of a fundamental part of the human experience. Like anthropologists consider the birth of language to be basically the birth of human intelligence.
Communication is so tied in to the idea of intelligence that the word “dumb” was originally used to describe someone who was nonverbal.
There are many things that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, but language is right at the top of the list.
That doesn’t mean we’re the only animals that communicate. Animals communicate all the time. Some in simple ways but some in ways that are so complex it’s basically like magic to us.
And with the progression of AI tools, we’re getting closer than ever to understanding these forms of communication. To the point that we may see a future where we’re able to literally just talk to animals. And the animals could talk back.
So today we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of animal communication and the technologies that might soon bridge the gap between us and our best friends.
I’ve talked about animal intelligence before on this channel, in fact I did a video on the smartest animal species and a video on the dumbest animal species.
The smartest animals video did really well, and the dumbest animals video kinda bombed so… let’s talk about how smart animals are in this video!
So there’s all types of ways that animals communicate. Some verbal, like howls, barks, meows… squeaks…
And some nonverbal like bioluminescence, scent marking, visual cues, and posturing.
For example, fireflies use bioluminescence. Ants use chemical cues. And peacocks use visual displays.
Researchers narrow down animal communication to four types:
We tend to think mostly about auditory communication because that’s mostly how we do it, with the mouth magic I was talking about earlier. But even in that category there’s a wide variety in the animal kingdom.
Like, animals of the same species that live in different regions might have different dialects just like we do.
It’s like birds in one area saying pop, while birds in another area say soda, while birds in another area say cola. While birds in Texas say coke even though they drink Dr. Pepper.
There are even examples of birds that live on the border between different dialects that learn to adapt their dialect depending on who they’re talking to. Bilingual birds basically.
Animals can also communicate through sounds, but in sounds that we can’t hear.
Like dolphins that communicate through ultrasonic frequencies that are too high for us to hear. On the flipside of that are African elephants that can communicate through infrasound, that’s too low for us to hear.
The cool thing about that is it can travel extremely long distances, up to 281 kilometers away. And even cooler, it’s thought that they can not just hear it through the air, but through their feet, picking up the vibrations from the ground.
By the way, auditory communication doesn’t necessarily mean vocal communication.
Like the male peacock spider. It kicks out a beat with its legs hoping to attract a female. Once it does, it then performs a little dance. If the lady spider likes it, she’ll start to dance, too.
That starts to get into visual communication. Now obviously there’s a lot of different ways that animals use their body language to communicate, to attract a mate, to ward off rivals, to point out threats or food.
This can take the form of puffing themselves up to look bigger and more threatening, or show off plumage to look more appealing, or in the case of bees, doing a little shimmy pattern in the hive to communicate a source of pollen.
Which has always fascinated me that something with a brain the size of a grain of sand can communicate what something is, how far away it is, and what direction it is just by dancing. That’s just insane.
Then you have cephalopods who change colors to communicate. Not just change colors but create flashing patterns of colors and even textures. Like I’ve said this before, but imagine if people could just flash what they’re thinking in words on their skin. That would be crazy.
Cephalopods are crazy, and they’re also the subject of the best-written script in the history of this channel. Still can’t believe that episode didn’t win any awards. Like the Nobel Prize. That script was deserving of a… Nobel Prize? Who wrote this – did Jason write this? Agh! I got Jason’d!
But anyway, cephalopods change colors to attract mates or to repel predators or to camouflage themselves. Or just to make us lose our minds – they’re friggin aliens.
Now when we talk about tactile communication, that can be everything from touch to form bonds between pairs or family members to aggressive mock attacks to establish a pecking order.
There’s also a slight crossover between tactile and auditory communication like I was talking about elephants feeling sound through their feet. Another example of that kind of thing is the African demon mole rat.
Yes, because mole rats aren’t freaky enough, now there’s DEMON mole rats.
They live their lives underground and bang their heads against the tops of tunnels. How quick and hard the thumps are indicates different things to other demon mole rats.
Finally, there’s chemical communication. This can be everything from pheromones to attract a mate to ants leaving chemical trails for other ants to follow… Sometimes resulting in a death spiral.
Or… just smell. We’ve all seen dogs sniff each other’s butts, that’s a way for them to gather information about each other. That’s basically chemical communication.
In fact many animals use their poop for exactly that purpose. Like white rhinos have communal poop areas called middens that can be up to three meters wide.
It’s kind of like a message board, relaying social and biological information to other white rhinos.
When humans and animals try to communicate with each other, it’s usually through auditory, tactile, and visual cues.
Think of your dog barking. Or maybe your cat at rubbing itself against your leg. Or maybe you get your bird to dance to a song.
All of that is great, and surprisingly effective. I mean anybody out there with a dog, you know when they’re hungry or when they need to go out, or when they’re interested in something or when they’re not feeling well… There’s a reason why we bond with them so strongly.
And like me I’m sure many of you carry on full conversations with your dog…
But these conversations are pretty one-sided. And there’s a lot of projecting and anthropomorphizing on our part. The real dream is for animals to talk back, using words, just like we do. Which happened for the first time in 1967.
That’s when the husband and wife team of Allen and Beatrix Gardner had the idea of teaching sign language to primates. This makes sense because their vocal structures just don’t have the ability to create the same sounds we do – but chimpanzees and gorillas often communicate visually through gestures.
They tried this on a chimpanzee named Washoe and found some moderate success, and this prompted Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson to try this with a gorilla in 1972. A gorilla named Koko.
Koko is by far the most famous “talking animal” of all time, she was able to not just ask for food or for toys – which she did, all the time – but also seemed to be able to convey complex emotions and concepts.
There’s a story that she was once asked what happens when you die and she responded, “Comfortable hole bye” … That makes me feel weird things.
She also apparently struck up a friendship with Robin Williams when he visited with her one time, I think she had seen him on TV a lot and was really happy to see him, anyway, that was heartwarming.
It’s thought that Koko had developed a vocabulary of up to 1,100 signs before she died in 2018.
Should be said though that there are some language and animal experts that don’t think Koko understood what she was signing. They think she was just mimicking what humans were doing. Just full disclosure there is a bit of a debate around it.
Then we have those videos that some of you may have seen of dogs using sound boards to communicate with their owners.
I know, it’s amazing and adorable and wholesome and of course I’m going to throw cold water on it because I’m the actual worst.
For one, the dog may be pressing a button without knowing or understanding the word.
B.F. Skinner’s rats didn’t talk, and they knew which lever to push for food.
The dog could also use clues from its owners, like body posture or looks. The owner may be doing this unintentionally, but dogs are great at reading even the smallest signs in our body language.
When your communication is primarily visual, you become hyper-attentive to these kinds of things.
And sure they may have a kind of understanding of what the words mean, in the sense that they know if they press X button and it makes Y sound, it gets Z reaction from us. And of course if it’s a reaction they like they’ll keep doing it.
Like the dog might press “I love you” but it’s not necessarily because it understands the word love and the concept that that entails, they can just tell that it makes us happy, and we smile and pet them and play with them when they do it. Again, they press a button and they get a thing they like.
And I’ll just say it, dogs are manipulative little liars, my old dog Jake hurt his leg one time and saw how much attention we gave him when he limped and so from that point forward he’d fake a limp to get sympathy from us. And yes, it worked, every time.
And there are other issues with these videos, I don’t need to go into all of them but they are edited, so you don’t know how many times the dogs tapped nonsense into the board that got cut out, maybe for every “intelligent” interaction there were 99 nothingburgers.
And also according to an article that I’ll link below, the people who made these videos are participating in a study that’s being funded by the makers of the sound board, so it’s kiiiiinda a marketing thing?
Just to be super clear, I’m not saying there’s nothing to this, just that, well, like everything on the internet, skepticism is warranted.
And I totally get why people love these videos, of course we want to be able to talk to our pets, we love them, we have a bond with them, we share our homes and even beds with them. And especially when they’re sick or hurting, it’s super frustrating that they can’t just tell us what’s wrong
Being able to talk to animals and understand their thoughts and feelings might even help us better understand our cognitive abilities as humans.
It may also help us take better care of them in zoos and sanctuaries, because they’ll let us know what they want or need.
Sidebar: Would we still put them in zoos if we knew what they thought?
It could also help develop deeper and more interactive relationships between animals and their caregivers. Maybe help reduce anxiety in both.
And this is a bold statement but who knows, maybe communicating with animals would help us become more empathic beings, not only with each other, but with the planet as a whole, which could impact conservation efforts and give us a real incentive to protect it from unnecessary abuse and exploitation. To my knowledge, there’s only one thing that can truly do that…
So, what would the world look like if we could talk with animals?
Well, the nonprofit Earth Species Project wants to find out. According to its website:
“We believe that an understanding of non-human languages will transform our relationship with the rest of nature.”
And it wants to use A.I. to decode animal communication and to talk to animals.
It plans to use machine learning systems to help decipher animal communication. It’ll do this by identifying patterns and then analyzing data to understand them.
They hope to link back the communication patterns to figure out what they could mean.
The analysis includes data from bioacoustics, which is the recording of individual animals, and ecoacoustics, which is the recording of whole ecosystems.
To measure this, they established a benchmark for machine learning algorithms in October 2022.
It uses 10 datasets of different animal communications to create a baseline for A.I. classification. It’s called the Benchmark of Animal Sounds, or BEANS.
The datasets include recordings from amphibians, birds, elephants, insects, and primates. Cats and dogs are being studied, too.
But it’s marine animals like whales and dolphins that show the most promise.
As CEO Katie Zacarian said:
“Cetaceans are particularly interesting because of their long history—34 million years as a socially learning, cultural species. And because—as light does not propagate well underwater—more of their communication is forced through the acoustic channel.”
This type of research can help with conservation efforts.
For example, A.I. analysis helped create “mobile marine animal protection areas” off the West Coast of the U.S.
A.I. is not only helping with research and conservation efforts. It can also help endangered species.
Like the Hawaiian Crow, which went extinct in the wild in the early 2000s.
Some of the last remaining birds were brought into captivity as part of a conservation breeding program. But reintroducing them into the wild has been challenging.
The Earth Species Project wants to help out with this by studying the bird’s vocabulary, creating a catalog of all its calls.
Then it’ll compare that to historical recordings of wild Hawaiian Crows to figure out if calls have changed since being in captivity.
The thinking is that maybe one of the reasons they’re having trouble reintegrating into the wild is that Maybe they’ve lost important calls in captivity, like mating calls or warnings about predators. And if so, perhaps they could retrain the birds through those old recordings to give them a leg up in future rewilding efforts.
And if successful, could be repeated with hundreds of other threatened species around the world.
That’s obviously a noble cause… but let’s be honest, you’re just here because you want to talk to your dog.
Machine learning may help with that as well, by finding subtle differences in dogs’ posture and expressions they use to convey information.
And one of the people working on that is Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, a professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University and the author of Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals. He wants to create an A.I. model that will translate a dog’s facial expressions and barks.
He’s coming at this after spending over 30 years studying prairie dogs, who have a sophisticated language all their own.
For example, they predator warning calls, but they also have specific calls depending on the kind of predator. He’s even documented them changing their calls to let other prairie dogs know the color of a person’s clothing.
Which kinda makes me wonder if they think people in different clothes are different species…
But he wanted to learn more, so he worked with a computer scientist to create an algorithm that turns animal vocals into English.
And he was surprised at what the prairie dogs were actually saying…
He formed a company called Zoolingua, and they’re currently focused on translating what dogs communicate to us.
In an interview with the CBC in 2013, Slobodchikoff said that he imagines having something the size of a cellphone that could translate a woof or meow into “I want to eat chicken tonight” or “My litterbox is filthy, please clean it.”
He believes that if dogs and humans could understand each other better, it would cut down on the number of animals euthanized due to misunderstood behavior.
And just knowing that animals have complex thoughts could create more empathy in people toward them.
As he told the CBC:
“When people realize that prairie dogs and other animals as well can talk … suddenly they see these animals with a new perspective. They’re actually thinking, breathing things not that much different from us.”
A.I. could also help farmers and ranchers identify which animals are sick or in pain by looking at microexpressions in their faces.
Dr. Krista McLennan teaches animal behavior at the University of Chester in England. And one of the common concerns she heard from sheep farmers was that they have a hard time recognizing pain in their sheep.
So, she created a pain scale based on the animals’ facial expressions, like folded ears or retracted lips.
Then, Dr. Peter Robinson at the University of Cambridge turned the scale into an A.I. algorithm, and trained it on hundreds of sheep photos.
The technology proved to be faster and better than a human at identifying sheep in pain.
As McLennan told Euronews in 2018:
“We are looking at pain because that’s the most significant in terms of welfare. But there’s nothing stopping us from looking at other emotions as well. What does a happy sheep loo
And more work is continuing. But before we get too excited, there are some pretty major obstacles to overcome, both technological and ethical.
Because one of the major problems that we have as humans is kinda what I was saying before about the dogs and the soundboards – we tend to project what we think they’re saying or what we want to think they’re saying. It’s a pretty major bias and one of the issues we’ve learned with AI models over the last few years, especially the LLMs is they can pick up on those biases.
One of the efforts to get around that was created by neurobiologists Yossi Yovel and Oded Rechavi from Tel Aviv University in Israel. They created what they call the “Doctor Dolittle Challenge.”
They published this idea in the August 2023 issue of Current Biology, and in there they cited three obstacles that need to be overcome by AI, including:
- It has to use an animal’s communication signals and not learn new ones.
- It has to use the signals in several different behavioral contexts.
- The animal has to produce a measurable response like it was communicating with a similar animal and not a machine.
So, scientists have created a robotic honey bee that mimics a real bee’s waggle dance to let other bees know where food is.
This covers points one and three of the Dr. Doolittle Challenge. But it only works in one context.
We can’t ask a bee, or a dog, or a cat, or a whale what it’s feeling.
But even if we could increase A.I.’s power to understand animal communication, we’ll still run into some of the same obstacles.
As they write in the paper:
“Even if we will never be able to talk to animals in the human way, understanding how complex animal communication is and attempting to tap into it and mimic it is a fascinating scientific endeavor.”
It’s an endeavor that has to consider ethical concerns, too.
For example, poachers already use recordings of mating sounds to entrap animals. Imagine what they would do if they could use AI to communicate specific messages to the animals. Which… let’s just be honest. They will. Absolutely do that.
Like all AI tools, they are just an accelerant. Good people will use it to do bigger and better things. Not so good people will be extra not so good with it.
And what about consent? I mean if understanding communication from animals gives us an enlightened insight into their status as sentient creatures, you kinda have to respect the possibility that maybe they don’t want to talk to us.
I mean if you were an animal… would you want to talk to us?
You also have to ask if talking to humans would affect social dynamics or natural behavior.
Kate Zacarian from the Earth Species Project’s thinks it’s a conversation worth exploring to help stop anything bad happening.
But she believes the benefits are huge for conservation efforts and for installing more empathy in humans toward animals.
As she told Discover magazine in June 2023:
“Humans need to dramatically shift the way they are relating with the rest of nature.”
I certainly won’t argue with that. Whether or not being able to communicate with animals will get us there? I don’t know…
Like it’s funny to me, we always talk about what a paradigm shift it would be if we found alien signals and what it would take to communicate with them like the movie Arrival, and how it would make us rethink our entire place in the universe and all that… But we live on a planet with millions of different species that we do communicate with in a way… And it doesn’t seem to have really changed anything.
For me it ‘s just fascinating as a look at how intelligence works. What intelligence means. How every different species has different ways of doing it. And as we’re developing AI tools to solve the problem well AI is just another kind of intelligence… It all gets very squishy.
But serious question, do you think real communication with animals is possible? Do you think that if we could it would be a big, redefining moment for us as a species? And what are some moments you’ve experienced where you feel like an animal has communicated with you? The freakier the better. Talk amongst yourselves, I’m gonna get some coffee…