How Close Are We to Talking With Animals?


You may not want to admit it, but at one time
in your life, you’ve talked to an animal. Maybe it was letting a dog know it was a good
dog or asking a cat where it’s been. Maybe you gave words of encouragement to an
elephant or scolded a sheep. Whichever animal it was you talked to, one
thing is for sure; it probably didn’t talk back. But what if it could? Scientists are working on ways to not only
understand what animals are saying, but to one day talk back, forever changing the way
we think about them. So, how close are we to talking with animals? Okay, I know what you’re all saying, animals
do “talk”, just not with words. They make noises, they have facial expressions
and body language. But, this isn’t exactly what we’re talking
about. I think it’s important to distinguish between
what we call communication and language. Communication is the more general term and
it really refers to this exchanging of signals, sharing and exchanging messages or signals
in a meaningful way. Language is a word that is fraught with interpretations
and involved in many debates, whether other animals have language or they’re communicating. Well the truth is that we suppose that animals
have language, but in a lot of cases, we have to actually prove this experimentally. But a lot of people are enchanted with the
idea of animals having language. No one has yet proven that an animal or a
species has language, partly because the idea of what constitutes a language hasn’t really
been established. But in the broad sense, language should be
a distinct and organized pattern of communication, with a near infinite number of combinations,
that has been learned and used voluntarily, not in a reactionary or instinctual manner. When your dog barks when a squirrel runs past,
this is a predictable and instinctual response, so we don’t consider it language. But there have been studies that have shown
some do communicate in a very complex manner that show traits of language. Now we just have to figure out how to decipher
what they’re saying. I think the possibility of us having a Rosetta
Stone with an animal is very real. What we have to do is we have to do the experiments
to determine the context in which animal signals are given. That context is going to give us the Rosetta
Stone. And that’s exactly what’s happening. Dr Con Slobodchikoff has been studying prairie
dog calls because within those high-pitched chirps, they actually are saying a lot. They are able to tell each other what the
species of predator is, and the alarm calls are given in response to a predator. The prairie dogs tell each other whether the
predator is a red-tailed hawk, is a coyote, is a domestic dog, or is a human. They can describe the physical features of
the predator. With humans, they can tell each other about
the color of clothes that the person is wearing, about the general size and shape of the person,
something about the speed of travel of the person. Combining years of recorded prairie dog alarms
with AI technology, he may one day be able to create a prairie dog to English translator. Unfortunately, determining that animals have
language is a difficult process. It’s not an easy one. It takes a lot of effort and time, and it
takes a certain amount of money. One of the main obstacles that slows us down
from communicating with other species is that we don’t have a shared code. While Dr Slobodchikoff is trying to use prairie
dog language as the shared code, others are looking to create a new code, one that can
hopefully bridge the gap between humans and animals. We’ve now created a four by eight foot touchscreen,
an interactive underwater touchscreen for dolphins that will allow them again choice
and control and it will allow us to try to understand what the kinds of signals they’re
using and their own interests, more about their cognitive abilities. Dr. Reiss and her team will observe the dolphin’s
choices and compare that to their vocalizations and mannerisms with the hope of decoding some
parts of the dolphin’s speech. Again, to create a Rosetta Stone to help translate
and hopefully one day talk to dolphins using their language. In our lab, we try to give the dolphins a
means of communication using a keyboard so that they could request and identify different
objects and that’s what we’re working on now so that they can produce a code themselves. Again, it’s such a challenge though to come
up with a shared language. Well, if it’s so hard to learn their language,
can’t we just teach them ours? Isn’t that an easier way to have an interspecies
conversation? Well, maybe.  For decades scientists have been working
with apes to teach them American Sign Language in order to learn more about both the species
and the origin of human language. 8:00 – “So the first Chimp was Washoe, she
was wild caught by the Air Force. They were collecting chimps for the space
program…instead of going into space she joined this sign language project. She was raised like a human child…all over
her caregivers used American sign language…” Washoe was able to learn over 200 signs, talk
to scientists and even taught another chimp how to sign. More studies popped up, most famously with
Koko the Gorilla, and for a moment the lines between human and animals blurred ever so
slightly. Some were still skeptical, arguing that these
apes were just mimicking signs for a reward instead of voluntarily conversing. But other studies were done that showed apes
talking amongst themselves with signs and having private conversations with each other. They seemed to be using language voluntarily. Now, even though great progress has been made,
some in this field feel uncomfortable with the idea of bringing in new apes, or any animal,
into captivity. As someone that’s been doing this for a
long time, I feel that this research should never be repeated…but the chimps that do
have sign language, i feel it’s important for us to continue to document it, study it…i
feel that it’s important work because it helps us understand more about chimps and see the
continuity between our species and other species on the planet and i feel that if we understand
them better we’re more likely to treat them, and the rest of other beings on the planet
in a better way. And that is what may be at stake here. That’s why scientists are interested in
studying interspecies communication and closing that gap between us and them. I think if we could talk to animals, it would
really change our relationship with them because people would realize that they are much more
like us in many respects. They have emotions. They have thoughts…It becomes much more
difficult than to treat these animals as property, as disposable creatures… MJ “We are taught with our culture…that
we’re so special and superior to other beings…when people see the chimps signing, it’s like
the chimps are reaching across that imaginary boundary that our culture has put up…for
a lot of people that helps them widen their circle of compassion… .it’s going to really perhaps end what Loren
Eiseley has called The Long Loneliness of us being the only species that can communicate
with each other. That would be very exciting to be able to
communicate with other species on this planet. If we were ever able to have a conversation
with an animal, we first need to decode every sound and movement they make when communicating. This would be our Rosetta Stone, the groundwork
for being able to talk back, a scenario that might change how we think, govern, work, innovate
and of course, eat. So, how close are we to talking to animals? We really have to abandon our arrogance, and
it’s our arrogance that keeps us from communicating with other humans in other cultures…and
it’s our arrogance that has probably slowed our progress in understanding what non-humans
are talking about. We’re already communicating with animals in
simple ways. If we then ask the question how close are
we to having a more sophisticated dialogue or exchange with other animals using a shared
set of symbols in sophisticated ways, I would say, we still have a long way to go and we’re
just in the infancy of understanding how to do it. I think it really requires decoding more of
what they’re doing in their own natural systems and finding ways of incorporating that into
what we want to create as a shared code. It’s complicated but it’s intriguing. Thanks for watching How Close Are We, let
us know in the comments what topics you want to cover in future episodes. If you want more How Close Are We, click here
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