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Conservation

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.


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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.

Dive Deeper:

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

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Conservation

Book Review: “We are the Ocean,” by Captain Paul Watson

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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”

Dive Deeper

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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