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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.

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Header image: Sperm whales socializing. Photo by Brian J. Skerry

Companion story: Exploring Whale Culture: An Interview With NatGeo Photojournalist Brian 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.



WHY NOW?

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.

Figure 1: An interdisciplinary approach to sperm whale communication that integrates  biology, robotics, machine learning, and linguistics expertise, and comprise the following key  steps. Record: collect large-scale longitudinal multi-modal dataset of whale communication  and behavioral data from a variety of sensors. Process: reconcile and process the multi sensor data. Decode: using machine learning techniques, create a model of whale  communication, characterize its structure, and link it to behavior. Encode & Playback: conduct interactive playback experiments and refine the whale language model. Illustration  © 2021 Alex Boersma.
Figure 2: Sperm whale bioacoustic system. A: Sperm whale head contains the  spermaceti organ (c), a cavity filled with almost 2,000 litres of wax-like liquid, and the junk  compartment (f), comprising a series of wafer-like bodies believed to act as acoustic lenses.  The spermaceti organ and junk act as two connected tubes, forming a bent, conical horn of  about 10m in length and 0.8m aperture in large mature males. The sound emitted by the  phonic lips (i) in the front of the head is focused by traveling through the bent horn,  producing a flat wavefront at the exit surface. B: Typical temporal structure of sperm whale  echolocation and coda clicks. Echolocation signals are produced with consistent inter-click  intervals (of approximately 0.4 sec) while coda clicks are arranged in stereotypical  sequences called ‘codas’ lasting less than 2 sec. Codas are characterized by the different  number of constituent clicks and the intervals between them (called inter-click intervals or  ICIs). Codas are typically produced in multiparty exchanges that can last from about 10  seconds to over half an hour. Each click, in turn, presents itself as a sequence of equally spaced pulses, with inter-pulse interval (IPI) of an order of 3-4 msec in an adult female,  which is the result of the sound reflecting within the spermaceti organ. Illustration © 2021  Alex Boersma.
Figure 3: Comparative size of datasets used for training NLP models (represented by  the circle area). GPT-3 is only partially visible, while the dataset of the Dominica Sperm  Whale Project is a tiny dot on this plot (located at the center of the dashed circle). Shown in  
red is the estimated size of a new dataset planned to be collected in Dominica by Project  CETI, an interdisciplinary initiative for cetacean communication interpretation. The estimate  is based on the assumption of nearly continuous monitoring of 50-400 whales. The estimate  assumes 75-80% of their vocalizations constituting echolocation clicks, and 20-25% being  coda clicks. A typical Caribbean whale coda has 5 clicks and lasts 4 sec (including a silence  between two subsequent codas), yielding a rate of 1.25 clicks/sec. Overall, we estimate it  would be possible to collect between 400M and 4B clicks per year as a longitudinal and  continuous recording of bioacoustic signals as well as detailed behavior and environmental  data.
Figure 4: Schematic of whale bioacoustic data collection with multiple data sources by  several classes of assets. These include tethered buoy arrays (b), which track the whales in  a large area in real-time by continuously transmitting their data to shore (g), floaters (e), and  robotic fishes (d)Tags (c) attached to whales can possibly provide the most detailed  bioacoustic and behavioral data. Aerial drones (a) can be used to assist tag deployment  (a1), recovery (a2) and provide visual observation of the whales (a3). The collected  multimodal data (1) has to be processed to reconstruct a social network of sperm whales.  The raw acoustic data (2) has to be analyzed by ML algorithms to detect (3) and classify (4)  clicks. Source separation and identification (5) algorithms would allow reconstructing  multiparty conversations by attributing different clicks to the whales producing them.  Illustration © 2021 Alex Boersma.

Additional Resources:

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

Art

W I L D Life

Acclaimed National Geographic marine wildlife photographer Brian Skerry proffers a guided tour of his work—it’s a labour of love.

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“When people ask me how I got started, I usually describe falling in love with the ocean as a little boy growing up in Massachusetts, wanting to be an ocean explorer. I was watching the old Cousteau shows and reading National Geographic. So, my initial desire was to just explore the ocean. To explore and swim with sharks and whales and dolphins and shipwrecks and do cool things.”

“I think of myself as a storyteller. I am always trying to find meaningful ways to engage audiences about our planet. Over the years, a lot of my work has evolved into conservation because I was seeing all these problems in the ocean that I didn’t think were evident to most people. I knew I had a unique opportunity to reach a big platform. Ultimately, I believe that people protect what they love and that we need to find new ways to get their attention, get them to care.”

“My entrée into National Geographic was as a shipwreck photographer. Geographic had actually published a couple of my photos that I had randomly submitted; one was a Doria photo, on the anniversary of the Andrea Doria’s sinking, that ran in their front matter of the magazine. The other was a rare fish that I photographed in the Bahamas.”

“I was always fascinated by wildlife and dreamed of working with animals like sharks, whales, and dolphins. In some ways I think that I believed (and still do) that natural history stories were where I could create the most meaningful stories. Using science to better understand our planet and our relationship with everything around us. I’ve come to realize that everything is connected and that our actions matter.”

“Then I looked at orca research and learned about their feeding strategies and how this varies, depending on where they are in the world. For example, the orca that live in New Zealand have a preference for stingrays. The ones in Patagonia like sea lion pups. They are identical animals, like humans, but they’re doing things differently in different parts of the world based on what they were taught by their ancestors; traditions that have been handed down through generations.”

See: Exploring Whale Culture with National Geographic Photojournalist Brian Skerry




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