TED2013: Interspecies Internet?

Elaine Radford

An interspecies internet that allows us to communicate with other advanced species like dolphins and apes? That proposal came from an unusual foursome that calls itself The Interspecies Internet(I2I) at Thursday's meeting of TED2013, according to Gemma Tarlach reporting for Discover.

Tarlach noted that the research could also eventually give humans a way to communicate with any extraterrestrial we might encounter in the future. The team members of I2I have impressive credentials, since they include include internet pioneer Vint Cerf and musician Peter Gabriel.

According to a TED blog entry posted by Kate Torgovnick, the project started with dolphin researcher Diana Reiss, who has already been learning to communicate with the marine mammals with the help of an underwater keyboard.

Another dolphin researcher, Denise Herzing, gave her own TED2013 talk to explain how a dolphin keyboard actually works. (Herzing is associated with the Wild Dolphin Project, not I2I.)

TED2013 blogger Torgovnick explained that Herzing's first keyboard was too rudimentary, so "they worked with a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology to build a wearable computer called CHAT." That device allows dolphins to be more specific when they ask a human for something -- so specific that they can ask for the item from a certain diver.

Both researchers are confident that if we can crack the code to communicating with these animals, we will be able to talk to other species -- even extraterrestrials, should we encounter them. "You can't get more alien than the dolphin. We're separated by 95 million years of divergent evolution. These are true non-terrestrials," Reiss said in her TED2013 address.

So where does "Shock the Monkey" musician Peter Gabriel come in? According to his official blog, he created the non-profit I2I foundation "to explore, encourage and facilitate communication between cognitive species." Gabriel is an activist for Bonobo Hope Sanctuary, which explores new ways to communicate with the intelligent apes.

Gabriel's goal, according to Torgovnick, was to write music with an animal. He introduced a bonobo to a keyboard. "She discovers a note she likes. She finds the octave," Gabriel said. "What would happen if we could somehow find new interfaces – visual, audio — to allow us to communicate" with other species?

Discover's Tarlach was skeptical of the interspecies internet proposal. "Could be the first step to a new kind of cute cat video," was her dry conclusion. But, for now, the project seemed to strike her as pretty pie-in-the-sky.

What do you think of the TED 2013 concept for an interspecies internet? Will it ever really happen?