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Can animals talk?

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Can animals talk? Sure. Can they understand? Maybe  

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

We have a talking bird. When I walk into the room, the bird says, "Hello! How are you?" And when I leave, the bird says, "bye-bye!"

The bird also has conversations with himself. You can never quite figure out what he is saying, but everyone who hears him agrees—the bird must be saying something.

He used to live in a beauty shop, and we figure the bird is repeating some of the gossipy conversations he learned when he eavesdropped on the customers.

The language he speaks in these conversations is a sort of semi-English. Occasionally, in mid-sentence, he starts to laugh. Sometimes he laughs so hard he gets out of breath.

Or maybe he is just imitating someone who laughs like that. Maybe the bird doesn't know what "hello" means, and maybe, when the bird whistles an entire chorus from the "1812 Overture," he thinks it's just another bird call.

The problem, of course, is that everyone who hears the bird tries to understand him from a human perspective. We humans are the tool-bearers, the builders, the talkers. Any creature that talks must be talking for an intelligent reason.

That's how we look at it. From this point of view, the bird is saying something.

But from his own vantage point, the bird is just making noise. The bird can't think, not even when he is obviously "thinking"—when he gets cute in the afternoon and calls the dog, or when he is lonely and puts on a little baby voice and cries.

When I finally figured out that the bird is more of a portable tape recorder than a miniature human, I felt relieved. But a recent development in animal research has left me more than a little uncomfortable.

A scientist in Florida has begun teaching dolphins to do something that up until now only humans could do. It's scary.

Dolphins, as we all know by now, can talk to each other, and some of them can even be taught to speak to humans. Brain for brain, dolphins are believed to be the smartest creatures on Earth. (Since they get along with each other extremely well and don't have nuclear weapons, they surely must be smarter than we are.)

And dolphins clearly like to have fun. Anyone who visits one of the many aquariums in the United States and Canada can see that right away.

But can dolphins do Nintendo?

That's what this researcher—whose work is still private—wants to find out. He is setting out to teach dolphins how to play video games.

As you might imagine, joysticks get a little soggy six feet down, so this scientist is working hard to create a new kind of computer- and video-game interface just for sea creatures. (No, I am not kidding.) Should they bump a touch-sensitive pad with their noses? Should they nudge a paddle with their fins?

The researcher is hoping that his dolphins will learn more than just games. Super Mario is one thing, but Electronic Battle Chess—there's a real challenge for you! Again, this is not a joke; if the research is successful and the dolphins learn how to play video games, it's possible that humans will be invited to a tournament to match wits with dolphins.

It might even be called the Land and Sea Invitational.

Much of the value of this dolphin research is purely informational. Can dolphins learn how to operate game consoles? Can they become competitive in something that requires quick thought?

But there is an element of science fiction in all this. Up until now, we have assumed that animals, like my friend's bird, do not talk to us because they really don't speak and think the way humans do. The bird is probably safe from video games, but dolphins just might find in them a way to reach out to humans and communicate in a language that all of us understand.

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