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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.
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
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.
“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.”
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Exploring Whale Culture with National Geographic Photojournalist Brian Skerry
The tech diving community tends to equate exploration with surveying virgin cave passage and/or discovering a shipwreck that was heretofore...