Scientists want to talk to whales. The answer is with AI

Project CETI in the Caribbean brings together a wide array of scientists and technology in a first of its kind progamme to develop an animal translation tool

An ambitious project has been launched in the Caribbean to see if the pips and squeals of a pod of sperm whales can be translated into human languages. Project CETI has brought together a range of scientists across multiple fields including cryptography, marine biology and high-level computing.



CETI stands for cetacean translation initiative. It will monitor a specific pod of sperm whales which live off the Caribbean of Dominica using specialised hydrophones, including robotic fish. By recording and analysis the noises that the individual members of the pod make the team hope to be able to gain an understanding of how animal communication works and whether there are specific noises that mean specific things.



Professor Dan Tchernov is COO of Project CETI, Marine Biologist Haifa University in Israel. He said that with the rapid advances in machine learning and AI, it may be now possible translate what animals such as cetaceans are saying to each other “Sperm whales, they’re using actually something close to Morse Code, so, just single clicks with different positions and with the same structure like five notes or three notes depends on the pod,” he said, adding that the project is already off to a good start “There is already there is quite a bit of annotated data with which we can start with, to show proof of concept”


There, is he said, evidence too that other cetaceans such as some dolphin species have distinctive sounds they scientists think could be akin to names. Intriguingly he added, some of these potential sounds are known to have been used after an individual leaves a pod or dies, suggesting that dolphins may have a level of consciousness we have not fully understood.



Tchernov said that there is a good chance that the project would be able to gain an understanding of sperm whale communication and believes it could even lead to humans being able to  even talk back to them.



Sperm whales (sometimes called cachalots) are the largest of the toothed whales (think Moby Dick) and grown males will have more solitary roaming lives while females and young will tend to live more in the tropics. Females care for the calves for up to a decade. Individuals have been known to live more than 70 years.


Sperm whales use echolocation to find food, largely squid, and will dive to depths of more than 2,000 meters. Its vocalisations can reach 230 decibels and it also has the largest brain of any animal. It communicates and hunts using clicks, creaks and codas. Different pods are believed to have different ‘dialects’.



Sperm whales were once widely hunted (for the spermaceti from which it gets is name) but are now protected by the International Whaling Commission.



CETI is also named thus because it has a nod also to extra-terrestrial life. While this may bring up images of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the project hopes to be able to gain an understanding of what is needed to enhance inter-species communication or at least translation.



 “This is called CETI also because it is theoretically the training wheels for the humankind to try and reach out to other civilizations,” said Tchernov. “if ever we encounter them, to understand how to try and decipher and communicate with something very, very different.”

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