iPad To Help Humans Speak With Dolphins

The ability to communicate with dolphins — a long sought after goal among scientists – could be on the verge of a breakthrough thanks to the iPad.

Dolphin researcher Jack Kassewitz is using an iPad loaded with apps, some custom built, to interact with a 2-year-old dolphin named Merlin – the first steps toward creating what Kassewitz calls a symbolic language, one that will not only allow humans and dolphins to interact more easily but also potentially lead to a universal translator for humans.

“For several years, we’ve recognized that part of the problem in creating an artificial language between humans and dolphins has been the speed of acquisition of the human brain; it’s just not up to competing [with that of the dolphin],” said Kassewitz, president of Global Heart, a non-profit firm heading up the dolphin research.

The dolphin’s “acoustic range is so broad and ours is so limited, and our speed to react to their sound is so slow, I think we were just plain boring,” Kassewitz said.

Kassewitz turned to computer hardware, which can process information much faster than the human brain, special software for recording real-time data, and underwater microphones.

Over the past two years, Kassewitz has whittled down potential human-dolphin interfaces to the iPad and the Panasonic Toughbook 19. The face-off is on. Trials with the iPad are underway, and results are encouraging, while those with the Toughbook will begin in July. The trials are being conducted in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, at Dolphin Discovery, which has facilities for swimming with dolphins.

The end goal is to develop a system of symbols and sounds that correspond to objects and concepts for dolphins and humans to communicate.

Kassewitz chose the iPad because it’s lightweight and touch sensitive. The other key advantage:  The iPad is fast thanks to Apple’s A4 CPU and has lots of apps, including SignalScope, which turns the iPad into a high-tech oscilloscope for capturing recorded sound.

To make it dolphin friendly, the iPad was encased in a waterproof bag called the Waterwear, a transparent, plastic casing made by Tokyo-based Tunewear, and given a yellow border, which Merlin seems to like.

So far, Merlin is just performing simple interactions with the iPad. For example, Kassewitz will show the dolphin an image of an object – a cube, yellow duck, ball, or a circle – on the iPad. If Merlin recognizes the object, he’ll tap the touch screen with his nose and then proceed to touch the real 3-D object that someone is holding nearby. At the same time, the dolphin's sounds are recorded using underwater microphones connected to the iPad.

Like tech fans, the iPad was simply a new gadget for Merlin. The dolphin is used to interacting with real objects, so when Kassewitz held up the iPad he saw it as “something novel,” Kassewitz said. “For him, it was a new toy.”

While so far Merlin’s iPad is only running this simple app, Kassewitz has talked with computer programmers who are interested in creating more complex apps, possibly ones that respond with dolphin-like sounds.

Michelle Bryner
Michelle writes about technology and chemistry for Live Science. She has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the Salisbury University, a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware and a degree in Science Journalism from New York University. She is an active Muay Thai kickboxer at Five Points Academy and loves exploring NYC with friends.