June 23, 2024

In the books and films of Dr. Dolittle, the ability to “talk to the animals” captured the imagination. Now scientists are being offered a $10 million prize to create real conversations.

The Coller Dolittle Challenge for Interspecies Two-Way Communication was launched by the Jeremy Coller Foundation and Tel Aviv University. Although the use of AI is not mandatory, the team says that the technology can advance almost all proposals.

“Just as the Rosetta Stone unlocked the secrets of the hieroglyphs, I am convinced that the power of AI can help us unlock interspecies conversations,” said Jeremy Coller, chairman of the foundation.

The team says the idea has precedence: researchers have recently developed machine learning algorithms to translate bat squeakwhich enables them to identify the subject of contention.

Other efforts in the field included algorithms to decode the emotions of pigs from their grunts, and the squeals of rodents identify when they are stressed. The Earth Species ProjectA California non-profit group is also working in the area, hoping to develop a system that can be applied to all species.

“In recent years, the scientific community’s understanding of the communication patterns of non-human organisms has advanced by leaps and bounds,” says Prof Yossi Yovel of Tel Aviv University, who chairs the Coller Dolittle Prize and co-authored the bat study . .

While the grand prize for “cracking the code” is an award of either a $10m (about £7.8m) equity investment or a $500,000 cash prize, there will be an annual prize of $100,000 to help researchers in the field to come up with “scientifically rigorous models and algorithms for coherent communication with non-human organisms until interspecies communication is achieved”.

Criteria for the smaller prizes include that approaches are non-invasive and applicable to a range of contexts, are based on the animals’ normal communication signals, and enable researchers to measure the animal’s response to attempts to interact with it. communicate.

“We hope to announce the criteria for the grand prize after two to three years of small prizes,” Yovel said.

The team behind the prize, which closes for submissions on July 31, said the aim is to develop a system whereby animals do not realize they are actually communicating with humans – similar to the Turing test for AI, in which the goal is to create a computer system whose conversation with a human cannot be distinguished from that of a real person.

“We are open to any organism and any modality from acoustic communication in whales to chemical communication in worms,” ​​Yovel said.

The team adds that the prize could have important consequences for the understanding of animal sentience, and thus provide support for animal rights.

Peter Gabriel, the musician and co-founder of Interspecies Internet, who helped develop the concept of the prize, said: “When I played music with bonobos, I was amazed by their intelligence and their musicality… I am delighted that there are serious scientists now engaged in understanding their communication and means by which we can begin meaningful interspecies communication.”

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Dr Katherine Herborn, an animal behavior researcher at the University of Plymouth, said one welfare application of technologies for decoding animal communication was to understand what farm animals might need to improve their management.

However, some experts have raised concerns ethical questions surrounding conversations with animals and questions whether AI can really shed light on the meaning or function of animal vocalizations.

“I think no amount of AI programming can replace long-term, detailed knowledge of the society in which animals communicate,” said Robert Seyfarth.
professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Trying to uncover the meaning of a baboon’s growl, a dolphin’s whistle or an elephant’s roar without knowing the social background – it takes years – is like jumping to page 137 of Pride and Prejudice and trying to explain why Elizabeth Bennett says no to Mr. Darcy. without knowing anything about their history.”

Clara Mancini, professor of animal-computer interaction at the Open University, said it is very plausible that AI will help us decipher animal communication. “If successful, it will be, in my opinion, one of the most valuable human achievements made possible by this rapidly evolving technology,” she said.

But, she added, whether success in this grand challenge will actually allow us to understand animal experience is another matter.

“More importantly, the question is whether we will be willing to really listen to what animals have to say and finally grant them the fundamental rights that their intrinsic dignity requires. I sincerely hope so.”

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