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“Today, tools like drones, digital recorders, and artificial intelligence are helping us listen to the sounds of nature in unprecedented ways,” writes Vox, citing Karen Bakker, author of the new book Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants.
But how far will this lead?
Automated listening posts have been set up in ecosystems around the planet, from rainforests to the depths of the ocean, and miniaturization has allowed scientists to stick microphones onto animals as small as honeybees. “Combined, these digital devices function like a planetary-scale hearing aid: enabling humans to observe and study nature’s sounds beyond the limits of our sensory capabilities,” Bakker writes.
All those devices create a ton of data, which would be impossible to go through manually. So researchers in the fields of bioacoustics (which studies sounds made by living organisms) and ecoacoustics (which studies the sounds made by entire ecosystems) are turning to artificial intelligence to sift through the piles of recordings, finding patterns that might help us understand what animals are saying to each other. There are now databases of whale songs and honeybee dances, among others, that Bakker writes could one day turn into “a zoological version of Google Translate.”
In an interview with Vox, the author points out that already “We can use artificial intelligence-enabled robots to speak animal languages and essentially breach the barrier of interspecies communication. Researchers are doing this in a very rudimentary way with honeybees and dolphins and to some extent with elephants.
“Now, this raises a very serious ethical question…”
I’ll give you one example. A research team in Germany encoded honeybee signals into a robot that they sent into a hive. That robot is able to use the honeybees’ waggle dance communication to tell the honeybees to stop moving, and it’s able to tell those honeybees where to fly to for a specific nectar source. The next stage in this research is to implant these robots into honeybee hives so the hives accept these robots as members of their community from birth. And then we would have an unprecedented degree of control over the hive; we’ll have essentially domesticated that hive in a way we’ve never done so before. This creates the possibility of exploitive use of animals. And there’s a long history of the military use of animals, so that’s one path that I think raises a lot of alarm bells.
“To IBM, ‘open’ means there is a modicum of interoperability among some of their
— Harv Masterson