Can We Learn To Talk With Whales? Introducing Project CETI
Inspired by “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” or SETI, project leader Dr. David Gruber and an eclectic band of scientists and researchers seek to decipher the language of sperm whales, which might be described as enigmatic aliens living in our midst. To do this, they are applying the latest technology including AI, cryptography, machine learning, and robotics.
Header image: Sperm whales socializing. Photo by Brian J. Skerry
Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), a non-profit organization, with the help of the 2020 TED Audacious Project, is applying advanced machine learning and gentle robotics to decipher the communication of the world’s most enigmatic ocean species: the sperm whale. In interpreting their voices and hopefully communicating back, we aim to show that today’s most cutting-edge technologies can be used to beneﬁt not only humankind, but other species on this planet. By enabling humans to deeply understand and protect the life around us, we thereby redeﬁne our very understanding of the word “we.”
As with the Earthrise photo from Project Apollo, CETI’s discoveries and progress have the potential to signiﬁcantly reshape humanity’s understanding of its place on this planet. By regularly sharing our ﬁndings with the public—through partners like the National Geographic Society—CETI will generate a deeper wonder for Earth’s matrix of life on earth, and provide a uniquely strong boost to the new phase of broader environmental movement.
Founded and led by scientists, CETI has brought together leading cryptographers, roboticists, linguists, AI experts, technologists and marine biologists to:
● Develop the most delicate robotics technologies, including partnership with National Geographic Society’s Exploration Technology Lab to listen to whales and put their sounds into context.
● Deploy a “Core Whale Listening System,” a novel hydrophone array to study a population of whales in a 20×20 kilometer ﬁeld site.
● Build on substantial data on the whales’ sounds, social lives, and behavior already obtained by the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.
● Create a bespoke, big data pipeline to examine the recorded data and decode it using advanced machine learning, natural language processing and data science.
● Launch a public interface, data visualization, communications platform and leadership initiative in collaboration with key partners to engage and foster the global community.
WHY SPERM WHALES?
Sperm whales have the largest brains of any species and share traits strikingly similar to humans. They have higher-level functions such as conscious thought and future planning, as well as speech and feelings of compassion, love, suffering and intuition. They live in matriarchal and multicultural societies and have dialects and strong multigenerational family bonds. Modern whales have been great stewards of the ocean environment for more than 30 million years, having been here for ﬁve times longer than the earliest hominids. Our understanding of these animals is just beginning.
In the late 1960s, scientists, including principal CETI advisor Dr. Roger Payne, discovered that whales sing to one another. His recordings, Songs of the Humpback Whale, sparked the “Save the Whales” movement, one of the most successful conservation initiatives in history. The campaign eventually led to the Marine Mammal Protection Act that marked the end of large-scale whaling and saved several whale populations from extinction.
All this by just hearing the sounds of whales. Imagine what would happen if we could understand them and communicate back. For the ﬁrst time in history, advances in engineering, artiﬁcial intelligence and linguistics have made it possible to understand the communication of whales and other animals more substantially. Our species is at a critical juncture, one where we can work together with the help of compassionate technologies to build a brighter, more connective and equitable future. CETI also hopes to provide a blueprint for future ambitious, collaborative initiatives that can help us on this journey.
Meet The Project CETI Team
Cornell University: Cetacean Translation Initiative: a roadmap to deciphering the communication of sperm whales by the current scientific members of Project CETI collaboration. April 2021
Harvard School of Engineering: Talking with whales
Project aims to translate sperm whale calls April 2021
National Geographic: Groundbreaking effort launched to decode whale language. With artificial intelligence and painstaking study of sperm whales, scientists hope to understand what these aliens of the deep are talking about. April 2021
National Geographic: David Gruber: Researching with respect and a gentler touch—National Geographic Explorer David Gruber and his team are taking a delicate approach to understanding sperm whales. March 2021
TED Audacious: What if we could communicate with another species? SEP 2020
Simons Institute: Sperm Whale Communication: What we know so far/ Understanding Whale Communication: First steps AUG 2020 with David Gruber
Book Review: “We are the Ocean,” by Captain Paul Watson
An illustrated journey to teach kids about the importance of water.
By Amanda White
When you read with children, they are connecting the words you say to the pictures on the page and to the things they see and do in their world. That seems pretty obvious, but a lot of parents don’t make the connection that the stories you choose to read to your kids can have a great impact on your child’s outlook of the world and themselves.
So, for us underwater lovers and environmentalists, books that cover these topics are key to teaching our children how important it is to protect and love the planet we call home and the creatures that live here. Storytelling is a powerful way to not only encourage your child’s imagination and further their education, but it is also a great way to shape the way they will go out and care for the planet and the beings on it.
Such books covering topics related to environmentalism and protecting the ocean are growing within the children’s book industry. One such book that was released this year is “We Are the Ocean” by Captain Paul Watson who founded the activist organization Sea Shepherd, whose mission is to protect and conserve the world’s oceans.
In his book Captain Watson explores the connection between water and all living things. He takes a poetic stance toward describing how water sustains life and the continuous cycle through which it goes through all animals and plants. He explains this very simply for kids to understand the concept on the most basic level.
With beautiful illustrations by Sarah Borg that depict the adventure of two children and their dog friends, your child will learn about the importance of water and our direct relationship with it. The book teaches kids that water is in the cells of all plants and animals, including their own bodies. It even explains that readers drink water that was “once within the body of dinosaurs”. The book does a great job of sharing the concept that the ocean is a part of all of us and even has a Sea Shepherd boat in the illustrations. The hope is to instill young readers with a love for the ocean and a passion to take care of it as they grow older. It rings true of Captain Paul Watson’s most infamous quote, “If the oceans die, we die”.
“We are the Ocean” is great for kids who are just learning to read, as it is written for kids ages 3-5 years old who are in preschool or kindergarten. This book would be a great addition to your child’s reading list and would make an excellent holiday gift for the ocean-loving kids in your life. You can find We are the Ocean online and in stores at Barnes and Noble, on Amazon, and in the Paul Watson Shop.
A Bit About Captain Paul Watson
Named by Time magazine as one of the “Top 20 Environmental Heroes of the 20th Century,” Captain Paul Watson, has been fighting for our planet for over 60 years. For years he worked on freighters and deep sea vessels and it was because of this, as well as his participation in a demonstration at the U.S. and Canadian border, that he and several others created Greenpeace. Watson and the group were demonstrating against nuclear testing on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians. He continued his activism, and in 1977, he founded Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose mission is to be “a global movement to defend, protect and conserve life and diversity in the ocean.” Today it truly is a global movement with chapters in over 40 countries and is one of the few organizations that is actively protecting wildlife. Their current campaigns are, “Saving the Vaquita”, “Preventing IUU Fishing”, “Protecting Wild Salmon”, “Beaked Whale Research”, “Protecting Sea Turtles” and “Ocean Cleanup”.
Read more about Capt. Paul Watson and other stories by Amanda
InDEPTH: Can We Save Our Planet? What About Ourselves? Interview With Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson by Amanda White
InDEPTH: Where have all the young divers gone? Meet Rob Thomas and Young Divers International by Amanda White
Amanda White was one the minds behind InDEPTH when it first began, through her work as Marketing Director at Global Underwater Explorers.
Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.
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