Medical Rodents' Talk Isn't Just 'Cheep'

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hypnagogue

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Imagine a device that would let you "talk" with your dog or cat. One that could help you ask a cow a question or converse with a dolphin. Two Arizona scientists say computers may someday bridge the language gap between humans and other animals.

"You could have this little thing hooked to your belt and you could speak and it could be translated into animal language," says John Placer, a computer scientist at Northern Arizona University.

It sounds like pure science fiction, and at this point it is. "We're a long way off from that," says Placer. But he and biologist Con Slobodchikoff, also of NAU, are working toward this very goal. The two are applying principles of artificial intelligence and fuzzy logic to animal language systems in the hope of cracking the code.
http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,67793,00.html [Broken]
 
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Moonbear

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This sounds a bit far-fetched to me (or maybe overly-ambitious is a better way of saying it), at least in the way it's described. While we know animals use vocalizations to communicate, it seems a bit much to assume it's just a matter of translation. Even knowing that the vocalizations and communications between some species are more complex than previously believed, such as bird calls, I don't know that there's any basis to believe it would be in any way similar to the sort of language humans have, or vice versa.

Now, what might it be more useful for? Perhaps identifying specific vocalizations that are used to indicate danger, pain, stress, calling a mate, warning an intruder that they are entering their territory, solicitation of play, calling to offspring, etc. For example, this might be useful for a veterinarian tasked with determining if the dog whimpering post-surgery is giving an "I'm in pain" whimper, or a "I miss my owner" whimper in order to decide whether added pain medication is needed.
 

hypnagogue

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I agree for the most part. What caught my attention in this article is the apparent complexity of the prairie dog 'vocabulary.' e.g.:

Slobodchikoff studies prairie dogs, and he says he has found that the Gunnison's variety has a remarkably complex language system. A Gunnison's prairie dog can describe and warn others of an approaching coyote or a red-tailed hawk, and do it by "name." There are consistent chirps that denote the presence of humans and even non-predators like skunks or badgers. There are specific calls for cows, elk, prong-horned antelope and domestic cats, and these calls are consistent across prairie dog colonies, Slobodchikoff says.

...

Slobodchikoff has identified more than 20 prairie dog "words" and says he has found prairie dog calls that describe shapes and colors. "We set up some experiments where we had humans wearing different-colored shirts," he explains. "We had these people walk through prairie dog colonies, recorded the calls and found that, sure enough, there was variation that was consistent." The prairie dogs across the board had the same distinctive calls for blue shirts, green shirts, yellow shirts and so on.

This complexity and the apparent prairie dog use of adjectives has led Slobodchikoff to take a leap. He believes that the animals may have more than just a series of identification calls -- possibly a crude language structure that may include a sort of prairie dog grammar.
If prairie dogs really do have that degree of sophisticated, consistent vocalizations, it does seem to begin to point to something more than fuzzy, high-level kinds of vocalizations that indicate the animal's gross emotional state, or denote some very coarse categorization of external stimuli like "danger!" I wouldn't expect to find the sort of linguistic capacity described above in most animals, but to (apparently) find it at all in a non-human animal is pretty surprising and noteworthy. It's an interesting line of research, but yeah, more work needs to be done before it becomes anything more than a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
 

Moonbear

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hypnagogue said:
If prairie dogs really do have that degree of sophisticated, consistent vocalizations, it does seem to begin to point to something more than fuzzy, high-level kinds of vocalizations that indicate the animal's gross emotional state, or denote some very coarse categorization of external stimuli like "danger!" I wouldn't expect to find the sort of linguistic capacity described above in most animals, but to (apparently) find it at all in a non-human animal is pretty surprising and noteworthy. It's an interesting line of research, but yeah, more work needs to be done before it becomes anything more than a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
Oh, shoot, I wish I could remember where I read it now. Somewhere in the past week I read about analysis of chickadee songs (I can't recall if it was a recent article or just one I found recently). The folks studying the songs have identified a relationship between the number of D notes at the end of the song and the threat of a nearby predator related to the size of the predator. Apparently, smaller predators are more of a risk in being able to get to the chickadees up in the trees, so there are more D notes at the end of their songs/calls when a small predator is nearby than a larger one. The article had also discussed that there were a lot more tonal variations in the song than we notice when listening by ear.

So, I don't doubt that there are at least some species that have complex communication patterns, I just don't know that it's something we can translate the way that article suggests. If you think about our own language and vocal communications, some things are pretty clear no matter what language you speak - a yelp when you hurt yourself, a groan when in real agony. But when it gets to actual language, we don't even know enough about how our own species acquires our own languages for me to think we're going to figure out a language of another species first. If you're teaching someone another language without knowing their language, you have to start out with things like pointing to an object and saying its name. We can figure out vocalizations with concrete contexts, like a bird call that's always made when a predator arrives. But, when it comes to the abstract terms, the question, "What are you thinking?" would be pretty hard to communicate to someone who doesn't understand the language, let alone to understand the answer. I guess I'm doubting more our ability to understand the complexities and nuances of animal communication than I am that such complexities and nuances exist.
 
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If this ever comes about, I think finding out about animals emotional state would be fascinating. And also down right interesting to get there perspective on ...choosing a mate..memory, or even something as simple as the weather.
I love listening to the doggy telegraph, and the different barking is very distinct. The same patterns are repeated, as the messages is sent from dog to dog down the street.
Now does the squirrel in the tree know the bark for "strange dog on the block" and stay in the tree?
I'd love to know these things.
 
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I think a thing like this could be used by men to communicate with women
and vice versa- for maybe the first time in history.

Man: "Honey, what would you like to watch on TV?"
Woman: "Are you trying to tell me something?"
Man: "Huh?"

etc..
 

loseyourname

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Aren't there some who think dolphins use their complex vocal capabilities and their ability to echolocate to communicate with images? If that's the case, it would seem virtually impossible to translate their vocalizations into words. As they, a picture is worth a thousand, and if every split second of sound carries with it a thousand words, that would be quite a difficult task.

It's interesting that you bring this up right now. I just finished rereading an old Star Trek book called Probe, where the challenge was to learn how to communicate with a probe created by a race of superdolphins. They were eventually able to do it (using computer technology that we won't have for another three hundred years) when they realized that thousands of messages were being communicated simultaneously on many different frequencies at once.
 
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I happen to know all those animals are playing "Ask a Stupid Quetion..." There is no hope they will ever be understood by science.
 

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