01 Apr 2013

Can Machine Translation Help Us Understand Animals?

It has long been accepted by scientists that humans are not the only animals capable of communicating. The study of animal communication, sometimes called zoosemiotics, has played an important part in ethology, sociobiology and the study of animal cognition.

Zoosemiotics is a rapidly growing area of study. Much of our prior understanding related to fields such as personal symbolic name use, animal emotions, animal culture, learning and even animal sexual behaviour, long thought to be well understood, have been revolutionised in the last few years.

Of all the creatures recognised for their ability to communicate extensively, dolphins are arguably the most well known. Researchers in the United States and Great Britain have made significant breakthroughs in deciphering dolphin language. Jack Kassewitz, of SpeakDolphin.com, claimed that he ‘spoke’ to dolphins using their own sound picture words. Apparently dolphins in two separate research centres understood the words, presenting convincing evidence that they employ a universal “sono-pictorial” language of communication.

However, dolphins aren’t alone. A recent scientific study on North American prairie dogs by to Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, Professor Emeritus, Biology Department at Northern Arizona University, showed that prairie dogs and humans share an important commonality aside from their complex social structures and habit of standing up on two feet. As it turns out, prairie dogs actually have one of the most sophisticated forms of vocal communication in the natural world, really not so unlike our own.

After more than 25 years of studying the calls of prairie dogs in the field, one researcher managed to decode just what these animals are saying. And the results show that prairie dogs aren’t only extremely effective communicators, they also pay close attention to detail.

According to Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, the chirps these animals use as ‘alert calls’ are actually word-like packages of information to share with the rest of the colony. Amazingly, these unique sounds were found to both identify specific threats by species, such as hawks and coyotes, and to point out descriptive information about their appearance.

He went on to state that “when they’re talking about humans, that might not always be flattering. For example, a human alarm call not only contains information about the intruder being a human, but also contains information about the size, shape (thin or fat), and colour of clothes the human is wearing”.

“When we do an experiment where the same person walks out into a prairie dog colony wearing different colored t-shirts at different times, the prairie dogs will have alarm calls that contain the same description of the person’s size and shape, but will vary in their description of the color.”

Seemingly unhappy with simply leaving these creatures to communicate with each other, Google have now developed Google Translate for Animals, an Android application which they hope will allow us to better understand our animal friends.  Translate for Animals recognises and transcribes words and phrases that are common to a species, like cats for example.

To develop Translate for Animals, Google worked closely with many of the world’s top language synthesis teams, and with leaders in the field of animal cognitive linguistics, including senior fellows at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Google state that they’ve “always been a pet-friendly company” and “hope that Translate for Animals encourages greater interaction and understanding between animal and human”.

Check out Google Translate for Animals in action in the video below.

Note: Google Translate for Animals was part of the company’s April Fools Day campaign of 2013. 


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