Can technology help us talk to animals?

“Today, tools like drones, digital recorders and artificial intelligence are helping us listen to the sounds of nature in unprecedented ways,” writes Vox, citing Karen Bakker, author of the new book Sounds of Life: How digital technology brings us closer to the animal and plant world.

But how far will that go?
Automated listening posts have been set up in ecosystems around the world, from rainforests to the ocean depths, and miniaturization has enabled scientists to attach microphones to animals as small as honeybees. “Combined, these digital devices function like a planetary-scale hearing aid: they allow people to observe and study the sounds of nature beyond the limits of our sensory abilities,” writes Bakker.

All of these devices generate a lot of data that cannot be sifted through manually. Therefore, researchers in the fields of bioacoustics (which studies the sounds of living organisms) and ecoacoustics (which studies the sounds of entire ecosystems) are turning to artificial intelligence to sift through the stacks of records and find patterns that could help us understand what animals say to each other. There are now databases of whale songs and honeybee dances, among other things, which Bakker writes could one day become “a zoological version of Google Translate.”
In an interview with Vox, the author points out that “we can use artificial intelligence robots to speak animal languages, essentially breaking the barrier of communication between species. Researchers are doing this in a very rudimentary way with honey bees and dolphins, and to some extent with elephants.

“Now that raises a very serious ethical question…”
I’ll give you an example. A research team in Germany encoded honey bee signals into a robot, which they sent into a beehive. This robot is able to use the honey bees’ wobble dance communication to tell the honey bees to stop moving and it can tell these honey bees where to fly for a given nectar source. The next stage of this research is to implant these robots into honey bee hives so that the hives will accept these robots as members of their community from birth. And then we would have an unprecedented level of control over the hive; We will essentially have domesticated this hive in a way we have never done before. This creates the possibility of exploitative use of animals. And there’s a long history of the military use of animals, so that’s one avenue that I think sets off a lot of alarm bells.

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