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Female humpback whale with calf

Can AI Help Us Talk to Whales? Maybe. But Then What?

In the real world, if we succeed in communicating with whales, it will be much like communicating successfully with dogs, cats, and horses. None of them are furry people.

A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine holds out the hope that AI can help enable us to talk with whales:

The clicks of sperm whales are ideal candidates for attempting to decode their meanings—not just because, unlike continuous sounds that other whale species produce, they are easy to translate into ones and zeros. The animals dive down into the deepest ocean depths and communicate over great distances, so they cannot use body language and facial expressions, which are important means of communication for other animals. “It is realistic to assume that whale communication is primarily acoustic,” says Bronstein. Sperm whales have the largest brains in the animal kingdom, six times the size of ours. When two of these animals chatter with each other for an extended period of time, shouldn’t we wonder whether they have something to say to each other? Do they give each other tips on the best fishing grounds? Do whale moms exchange stories about raising their offspring, like their human counterparts? It’s worth trying to find out, say the CETI researchers.

Christoph Dresser, Hakai, “Could We Chat With Whales?” at Smithsonian Magazine (October 28, 2021)

These campaigns, while interesting in themselves, often aim — essentially — at trying to show that animals think like people:

But do animals have language at all? The question has been controversial among scientists for a long time. For many, language is one of the last bastions of human exclusivity.

Christoph Dresser, Hakai, “Could We Chat With Whales?” at Smithsonian Magazine (October 28, 2021)

Of course, it isn’t true that whether animals have language “has been controversial among scientists for a long time.” Everyone, including researchers, knows that animals communicate with each other. What they don’t have is the capacity for abstraction.

Believers in human non-exclusivity do not appear to be especially picky about what counts as evidence for their views. For example, here’s a research finding that is supposed to be evidence that birds use grammar:

For a long time, scientists were convinced that animal communication lacked any sentence structure. But in 2016, Japanese researchers published a study in Nature Communications on the vocalizations of great tits. In certain situations, the birds combine two different calls to warn each other when a predator approaches. They also reacted when the researchers played this sequence to them. However, when the call order was reversed, the birds reacted far less. “That’s grammar,” says Brensing.

Christoph Dresser, Hakai, “Could We Chat With Whales?” at Smithsonian Magazine (October 28, 2021)

No. That isn’t grammar. The birds just didn’t understand the wrong-sequence call. By the way, how did we get so fast in the same story from whales to birds? Is that for lack of evidence for grammar among whales and any related species?

In the real world, if we succeed in communicating with whales, it will be much like communicating with dogs, cats, and horses. None of them are furry people. Whales are not blubbery people either. They won’t bring us closer to understanding what sets humans apart than dogs will.

But the critical question we should ask is this: If no realistic evidence of human-like intelligence among whales is found after much search, are we entitled to conclude anything from that fact? Or are we always told to catch at straws from incidental findings and vote up rhetoric against “human exclusivity” with no reasonable basis in fact?

The researchers are already sure of what they will find:

Programmers trained GPT-3’s neural network with about 175 billion words. By comparison, Gero’s Dominica Sperm Whale Project has collected less than 100,000 sperm whale codas. The first job of the new research project will be to vastly expand that collection, with the goal of collecting four billion words—although nobody knows yet what a “word” is in sperm whale language.

Christoph Dresser, Hakai, “Could We Chat With Whales?” at Smithsonian Magazine (October 28, 2021)

In the real world, there should be no surprise if there isn’t such a word. Plants have extensive communications systems that don’t rely on any individual intelligence at all. Whales are better placed than plants for individual intelligence but probably not better than dogs or cats.

And with whales — as with dogs and cats — there will always be people who graft explicitly human meanings into utterances never intended that way:

If Bronstein’s idea works, it is quite realistic to develop a system analogous to human language models that generates grammatically correct whale utterances. The next step would be an interactive chatbot that tries to engage in a dialogue with free-living whales. Of course, no one can say today whether the animals would accept it as a conversational partner. “Maybe they would just reply, ‘Stop talking such garbage!’” says Bronstein.

Christoph Dresser, Hakai, “Could We Chat With Whales?” at Smithsonian Magazine (October 28, 2021)

We can be fairly certain that a negative result, presented in an implausibly optimistic way, will be a bid for more research funding to, we are told, better protect whales.

In reality, efforts to “humanize” animals often lead to unintended cruelty. One thinks of the disastrous Hollywood-driven attempt to “free Willy”:

An orca (killer whale) was captured in 1979 off the coast of Iceland at two years old, given the name Keiko, and sent to spend a decade in a tank at a Mexican amusement park. His role in the film Free Willy (1993) sparked an effort to “free” him, with all the hysteria you can imagine.

He was freed at last — but, unable to readjust to the waters off the coast of Iceland, he kept trying to return to life with humans, the only life he really knew.

He had no idea of efforts to “free” him — any more than a domestic cat has of survival in the wilderness when thoughtless humans abandon him on a deserted wilderness road:

“When Keiko arrived in Norway, he actively sought out human company, swimming to boats and people,” say the researchers. “After a few days, he became inactive, staying near a small boat, possibly to avoid the large and steadily increasing crowd of people now seeking his attention.”

“At that time there was a crowd of people very close to Keiko,” says Simon. “All the kids of the town wanted to touch him and swim with him.” Local authorities forbade people from approaching or touching him, and his trainers – who thought he may have caught an infection from his human admirers – took him to live in a new open pen.

Keiko’s activity levels increased to previous levels, thanks to regular trips with his carers outside the bay. A year after his failed migration, Keiko died at the age of 26 or 27, apparently of pneumonia.

Catherine Brahic, “Why freeing Willy was the wrong thing to do” at New Scientist (28 April 2009)

The idea that whales or dolphins think like people dies hard. Same with chimpanzees. And it so often ends this way: The animal is abandoned somewhere and the researchers or activists move on to their next project.

Humans are exceptional, whether we like it or not. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be studying animal minds. Needless cruelty comes from pretending otherwise.

You may also wish to read: But, in the end, did the chimpanzee really talk? A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine sheds light on the motivations behind the need to see bonobos as something like an oppressed people, rather than apes in need of protection.


Dolphinese: The idea that animals think as we do dies hard. But first it can lead us down strange paths.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Can AI Help Us Talk to Whales? Maybe. But Then What?