This summer saw a celebrity heavy Interspecies Internet Workshop , “to explore whether it is possible to achieve new forms of interspecies communication using the Internet and other forms of interactivity”
I have some reservations about this.
It’s not that I don’t think that Animal Computer interaction isn’t important—I’ve written about it for years .
When I talk about this, I talk about creating species appropriate interfaces . Non-humans are, well, not human. They don’t think like humans, and their communications are not mappable to human communications in any trivial way. How could they be?
The Earth Species Project (their mission statement opens, “Between Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Oakland, the Bay Area”) is a lot more optimistic than I am. They ask, “Is humanity alone as the sole language using species on the planet?”(Yes.) Regardless, the project is “developing new artificial intelligence techniques that will allow us to consider this question in unprecedented ways”
To me, the overall idea of doing the Google Translate trick, using machine learning to map between the “language” of different species seems highly questionable. Applying powerful machine learning will certainly find patterns. But what will they mean?
What Does The Concept of “Animal Language” Even Mean?
Some of the researchers and funders seem to believe that there is some kind of underlying, shared language across all species. If only we can parse the alien syntax of whales, apes, or whatever, we’ll be able to translate into English and have a conversation.
Unfortunately, there is absolutely no reason to think that this is true, and plenty of reason to think that it isn’t.
We know for sure that no animal has anything remotely like human language.
There is also an implicit assumption here that, say, ape “language” is the same kind of logical entity as, say, whale “language”. This idea is unproven, possibly unprovable, and almost certainly wrong. And we know for sure that no animal has anything remotely like human language.
Interfaces Are Hard
Especially if you think like a human….
In IEEE Spectrum Elie Dolgin reports on the workshop discussions of a number of efforts to create video and touch screen interfaces for intelligent animals . There are lots of technical difficulties, especially when you try to hack up something designed bay and for humans.
Aside from the physical difficulty of designing for non-humans, it seems clear to me that animals mostly aren’t going to be particularly interested.
As I said ten years ago , you need to make the interface and the interaction species appropriate, which means something that fits in the cognitive universe of the animal.
This is the really fundamental question.
Some of the researchers voice motives around empathy and the value of “giving animals a voice”, which would give them more political power. These platitudes are arguable when it comes to people, and even more so in the case of animals.
I’ll point out that we already know that animals (and plants) are intelligent. That hasn’t given them political power any more than the undeniable humanity of people everywhere has assured political representation or humane treatment.
In any case, “saving the species” is a purely human motive.
What’s in it for the non-human users? Assuming you could even make it work, why would animals want to communicate via a digital network, at all? What do they want to say? What do they want to hear?
Frankly, they would have very little to say, and little motive to do so.
Go ahead, surprise me
I could be wrong.
Animals, especially the most “intelligent” species might be more like us that I think.
They might want to play games.
They might want to bully and abuse others, tell lies and scam each other.
They might want to watch (and make) porn.
That would be interesting to find out, and could give us whole new definitions of what “intelligences” means.
- Elie Dolgin, The Internet Is Coming to the Rest of the Animal Kingdom, in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2019. https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/internet/internet-of-living-things-can-communication-tools-break-down-the-interspecies-divide
- Robert E. McGrath, Species-appropriate computer mediated interaction, in Proceedings of the 27th international conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. 2009, ACM: Boston, MA, USA. http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/1530000/1520357/p2529-mcgrath.pdf