Robots can now talk to animals

By Callie Patteson

HUMANS are one step closer to talking to animals as new technologies are allowing artificial intelligence-enabled robots to speak with different species. 

Karen Bakker, a professor at the University of British Columbia, recently revealed this technology is being used to communicate with honeybees, dolphins and elephants and offered up a warning regarding the development. 

“Now, this raises a very serious ethical question, because the ability to speak to other species sounds intriguing and fascinating, but it could be used either to create a deeper sense of kinship, or a sense of dominion and manipulative ability to domesticate wild species that we’ve never as humans been able to previously control,” Bakker said in an interview published with Vox. 

She pointed to the use of artificial intelligence to communicate with honeybees in Germany. 

“A research team in Germany encoded honeybee signals into a robot that they sent into a hive,” Bakker said. 

“That robot is able to use the honeybees’ waggle dance communication to tell the honeybees to stop moving, and it’s able to tell those honeybees where to fly to for a specific nectar source.”

The update means that we might be able to talk to our furry friends soon
The update means that we might be able to talk to our furry friends soonCredit: Getty

“The next stage in this research is to implant these robots into honeybee hives so the hives accept these robots as members of their community from birth.”

At that point, Bakker emphasized that humans would have “an unprecedented degree of control” over those hives, basically “domesticating” them. 

“This creates the possibility of exploitive use of animals. And there’s a long history of the military use of animals, so that’s one path that I think raises a lot of alarm bells,” she said. 

For Bakker, who further discusses the recent technology in her book The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants, these concerns should not stop scientists from pursuing communication with animals. 

“But the hope is that with these ethics in place, in the future, we — you and I, ordinary people — will have a lot more ability to tune into the sounds of nature, and to understand what we’re hearing,” she said. 

“And I think what that does is create a real sense of awe and wonder and also a feeling of profound kinship. That’s where I hoped we would take these technologies.”

In the Vox interview, Bakker noted that the use of AI in communicating with animals is very different from how humans have tried to in the past.

For example, she pointed to teaching primates the human language or sign language, calling this a “very human-centered view.” 

Now, the research and technology is focused on the behaviors and patterns of different species.

Bakker explained that the process begins with recording sounds that animals and plants make to detect patterns and “associate those with behaviors too attempt to determine whether there’s complex information being conveyed by the sounds.” 

“What [these researchers] are doing is not trying to teach those species human language, but rather compiling, essentially, dictionaries of signals and then attempting to understand what those signals mean within those species,” she told the outlet.

So far, Bakker said that the research has determined elephants have different signals for honeybees – which it considers a threat – and humans.

“It’s funny, humans as a species tend to believe that what we cannot observe does not exist,” Bakker said. 

“So a lot of these sounds were literally right in front of our ears. But because of a tendency, especially in Western science, to privilege sight over sound, we simply hadn’t listened for them.”