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Researchers use artificial intelligence to review how elephants communicate with names like humans

Using artificial intelligence, scientists have discovered that African elephants use unique vocalizations much like names to call and discover specific members of their herd.

The studypublished within the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution provides evidence that elephants have complex communication skills previously considered exclusive to humans and a number of other species.

The joint research team, consisting of experts from Colorado State University (CSU), Save the Elephants and ElephantVoices, used machine learning (ML) techniques to investigate elephant calls recorded over 4 years in Kenya.

By training their AI model on these vocalizations, the scientists confirmed that the calls contained different components that served as names for individual elephants.

The study was conducted in 4 steps:

  • The researchers collected about 470 elephant calls from 101 individual callers and 117 receivers within the Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park.
  • Machine learning algorithms have been developed to detect subtle differences in call structure and discover the intended recipient based on acoustic characteristics alone.
  • When the recorded calls were played back, the elephants showed strong positive responses to calls directed specifically at them, while they responded less strongly to calls directed at others.
  • The study spanned 4 years, including 14 months of intensive fieldwork in Kenya, during which researchers followed elephants in vehicles and recorded their vocalizations.

CSU scientists called elephants by name, and the elephants called back 🐘

Lead creator Michael Pardo explained one of the fascinating discoveries“Dolphins and parrots call one another by 'name' by imitating the addressee's distinctive call. In contrast, our data suggest that elephants don’t depend on imitating the recipient's calls to deal with one another, which is more much like the way in which human names work.”

In human communication, we use arbitrary words (names) to confer with specific people. These names don’t necessarily sound just like the person they confer with or describe their characteristics.

For example, the name “John” doesn’t necessarily sound just like the person John, nor does it describe what he looks like. Rather, it’s an arbitrary term that now we have agreed on to explain this particular person.

The study due to this fact suggests that, much like how humans communicate through names, elephants use unique vocalizations as “names” for specific herd members.

These vocalizations don’t look like imitations of sounds made by the person being addressed, which is different from the way in which dolphins, parrots, and another extremely smart animals communicate.

Why communication between elephants and humans is analogous

Wittemyer, a CSU professor, described in a Colorado State University blog post how this highlights elephants' ability to think abstractly and communicate.

Wittemyer explained why elephants' communication may be much like ours: “We probably face similar pressures, especially because of complex social interactions. That's one in all the exciting things about this study; it gives us insight into possible the reason why now we have evolved these skills.”

It seems that humans have more in common with distant species than science once believed. The debate about this goes back centuries.

When Charles Darwin presented his now famous theory of evolution, critics vehemently rejected his comparison between “man and animal.”

They said that humans and animals have little in common – especially within the areas of language and communication, which have long been considered highly unique to our species.

Friedrich Max Müller, Professor of Linguistics on the University of Oxford, protested, as is well-known: “Language is the Rubicon that separates man from animals, and no animal will ever cross it… Linguistics will nevertheless enable us to withstand the intense theories of the Darwinists and to attract a transparent line between man and animals.”

Müller essentially argued that human language is exclusive – in its own category.

In contrast to Müller and Darwin's other critics, we now have convincing evidence that communication between humans and animals is non-coincidentally similar in species similar to elephants, some birds and dolphins.

Instead, humans and other animals developed complex but similar types of advanced communication due to their adaptive value.

Language has brought people closer together, similar to elephants, dolphins and a few species of birds, that are amongst probably the most intelligent organisms on earth.

The practical implications of elephant-human communication

The implications of this study are each practical and scientifically fascinating.

As elephants are increasingly threatened by poaching and habitat loss, insights into their complex social lives and cognitive abilities might help achieve conservation goals.

Wittemyer said the flexibility to speak with elephants could even help prevent conflicts between humans and elephants.

“It's hard to live with elephants once you're attempting to share a landscape they usually're eating the crops,” he said. “I need to give you the option to warn them: 'Don't come here. You'll be killed for those who come here.'”

We may give you the option to speak with elephants and warn them about areas where harm could occur to them. Source: Colorado State University.

This study represents an enormous breakthrough in understanding elephant perception and communication. However, the researchers acknowledged that rather more data is required to extract the particular names from the calls and to seek out out whether elephants also give names to other elements of their environment, similar to food, water and locations.

It's a tantalizing glimpse right into a language we all know exists but couldn't understand until recently.

The potential of AI in decoding animal communication

The application of artificial intelligence to decode animal communication is attracting growing interest amongst researchers.

Prior to this elephant study, quite a few initiatives have explored the potential of AI in understanding the vocalizations and behaviors of various species:

However, few projects on this area are as ambitious as Earth Species Project (ESP) for human-animal communication.

ESP hopes to unlock the secrets of non-human languages ​​and eventually communicate directly with animals using AI interfaces like ChatGPT.

Many are skeptical that AI alone will unravel the complexity of animal communication, however the rapid development of AI technology and this recent elephant study improve the prospects for ESP.

ESP goals to create a comprehensive map of animal communication by, amongst other things, disentangling overlapping animal sounds, generating novel calls to elicit responses, and routinely cataloging the vocal repertoires of individual species.

In 2023, the project was supported with a $1.2 million grant from the Seattle-based Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to support ESP's development of multimodal AI models.

The potential applications of ESP research are diverse and range from helping to guard endangered species to deepening our understanding of animal perception and social structures.

For example, decoding elephant communication could help conservationists keep the animals away from agricultural areas, Wittemyer explained.

Likewise, understanding whale calls could help prevent ship collisions, etc.

Ethical concerns regarding communication between AI and animals

Despite the chances, using AI to speak with animals raises some highly topical ethical concerns.

After all, humans, like other animals, have developed their very own sophisticated communication systems.

There is a few overlap—you could give you the option to inform what your dog or cat wants from the sounds or facial expressions they make—but there's no denying that a robust evolutionary barrier prevents animals from communicating universally.

And actually, there’s probably a reason why animals cannot communicate freely between species – at the very least not beyond warning calls and other more basic types of communication.

Humans, like other animals, have an ecological area of interest. Borders throughout the animal kingdom serve to keep up stability and order.

AI could penetrate these boundaries, and this has not gone unmentioned. A 2022 Paper The study, published within the journal AI Ethics, underscored the necessity for AI developers and scientists to discover and forestall potential harm to animals and stressed the responsibility of the scientific community to make sure the ethical application of AI technologies.

We must ask ourselves: Do we as humans have the proper to beat this communication gap? What happens if we don’t judge animals accurately or they don’t judge us accurately?

How can we quantify potential psychological harm or disruption of animals’ natural functions?

There aren’t any easy answers.

Breaking tens of millions of years of evolutionary history and using AI to speak with animals could possibly be extremely dangerous – much like gene editing and other technologies that change the fundamental structure of biology.

But as this elephant study proves, using AI to speak with animals, or at the very least to raised understand them for the sake of their safety, offers real and compelling advantages.


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