Swedish Startup Uses AI to Figure Out What Dolphins Talk About

  • Gavagai testing software on dolphins in 4-year project
  • Ultimate goal is to talk to the aquatic mammals, CEO says

After mastering 40 human languages, a Swedish startup has turned to dolphins, hoping to use its language-analysis software to unlock the secrets of communication employed by the aquatic mammals.

Using technology from artificial intelligence language-analysis company Gavagai AB, researchers from Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology will begin compiling a dolphin-language dictionary. The software will monitor captive bottlenose dolphins at a wildlife park about 90 miles south of Stockholm, the company said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

“We hope to be able to understand dolphins with the help of artificial intelligence technology," Jussi Karlgren, an adjunct professor of language technology at KTH and co-founder of Gavagai, said in the statement. “We know that dolphins have a complex communication system, but we don’t know what they are talking about yet.”

Tech giants such as Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. are using AI and machine learning -- essentially getting computers to act without being programmed for specific new tasks -- to deliver goods more quickly, interact with customers faster and create new tools at an increasingly rapid rate. Changes ushered in by AI will help companies that embrace them and put up barriers for those that don’t, Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos said in his annual shareholder letter earlier this month.

The dolphin project -- a planned four-year effort -- came about because Gavagai’s software has proven capable in real-life, natural language processing, CEO Lars Hamberg said by phone. Although there is no immediate business purpose, the research on dolphins will help the company sharpen its tool for other tasks, he said.

With new recording methods and larger resources for computation, more dolphin data is available, which is why Hamberg is confident Gavagai will unlock their dictionary and ultimately communicate with the animals, he said.

For decades, the U.S. Navy has used marine mammals such as dolphins and sea lions to carry out a range of tasks, from locating underwater mines to harbor defense. The animals are part of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, located in San Diego, California.

Gavagai has spent about $10 million over the past few years developing its language AI machine, Hamberg said. The company’s customers include WPP Group Plc’s market research company Kantar, SAS Institute Inc. and Nielsen Holdings Plc.

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