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Decoding the language of cachalot with AI

The ocean depths hold many mysteries, including the complex communication of Earth's largest-brained creatures - cachalot. An ambitious international scientific initiative called Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) aims to decode the language of these marine giants using cutting-edge artificial intelligence.



Founded in 2020, Project CETI brings together an interdisciplinary team of marine biologists, AI researchers, roboticists, computer scientists, and linguists on a pioneering quest to understand how cachalot communicate with their haunting rhythmic click patterns.

"We want to learn as much as possible," says Dr. David Gruber, a CETI biologist. "How does the weather affect their chatter? Who's talking to whom? What's happening kilometers away? Is the whale hungry, sick, pregnant, mating? Our goal is to listen to the whales in their own environment, on their own terms."


A Whale of a Challenge

Cracking the code of sperm whale communication is an unprecedented challenge. Humans have trained animals like dogs and dolphins before, and great apes have learned sign language. But understanding a entirely nonhuman language in the wild is something that has never been achieved.

"Imagine a Google Translate for animals appearing," muses the project website. “At a time when Mars is being colonized and monkeys can control computers, learning the first non-human language is not so far-fetched.”

To pull this off, CETI is leveraging rapid advances in natural language processing (NLP), the branch of AI that powers digital assistants like Alexa and translation tools. The researchers have developed specialized recording devices to capture millions of cachalot click codes, feeding this raw data into machine learning models to tease out patterns, grammar, and potential “words.”


Clues from Whale Watching

Sperm whales' immense brains and complex social structures suggest an advanced mode of communication. They live in matriarchal clans of hundreds or thousands of individuals, each with distinctive click dialects and identities. Calves appear to learn their dialect by incessantly "babbling" clicks from birth.

By closely observing cachalot in the wild, the CETI team hopes to link specific click sequences to behaviors like hunting, mating, or just casual chit-chat. Gradually aligning these behavior-linked sounds with their meaning could bootstrap the first "Rosetta Stone" for whale translation.

Marine biologist Shane Gero has already used AI to identify 94% of individual whales just from their click patterns. But that's just the start - cracking the full tongue will likely require tens of millions of annotated whale codes.


An Alien Intelligence?

If successful, communicating with cachalot could unsettle human assumptions about intelligence, language, and our relationship with other beings. As CETI's website asks: “What should we say to the sperm whale civilization?”

The scientists grapple with profound questions. What is it like to experience the world as a whale? How do these giants perceive humans and our impacts? Do they have an understanding of subjects like technology utterly foreign to their existence?

While two-way dialogue remains theoretical, CETI's effort hints at the tantalizing possibility of making first contact with a nonhuman intelligence here on Earth - an encounter that could expand the horizons of humanity's own consciousness.

As team member Ross Andersen reflects, “If communicating with an extraterrestrial intelligence becomes possible, it would be much easier [after this work]. Not only would it give our interlocutors the ability to translate our language, it would give them a sense of what our civilization is like, for better or worse.”

From the unexplored fathoms, cachalot may finally have something to say to the human world above. And with AI's help, we may finally learn to listen.

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