Brace yourself for the interspecies Internet

March 10, 2013 

Just how bright are animals anyway? I once had a border collie who used to look at me with such keen eyes that I would have sworn I could have taught her to play chess. Well, checkers maybe.

Humans have been experimenting with language and animal communications for a long time, working with dolphins, chimpanzees and even elephants. Now Vinton Cerf, whom most of us consider the “father of the Internet,” is proposing what he calls an “interspecies Internet,” a computing platform expressly designed to connect sentient beings.

Don’t plan on talking to Rover just yet, but ponder this. Musician Peter Gabriel, founder of the new venture, says the first step is to network together the pioneering researchers in this field along with their animal subjects, helping them to work with and develop new tools and applications.

Gabriel wants to connect species “who already have demonstrated a cognitive and linguistic understanding of interspecies communication from facility to facility (especially the families that have been separated), and additionally to their species in their native lands.”

Progress in Miami

How would they go about this? One example is already happening in Miami at the Jungle Island zoo, where researchers are communicating with orangutans using iPads. The software, originally made for people who have autism, lets the team show orangutans various objects that the trainer pairs with a corresponding button on-screen for the animals to push. Basic communications result as the orangutans build vocabulary and play games on the tablet.

We can tell a lot about animal intelligence already. Back in the 1930s, a linguist named George Zipf realized that the most used word in English (the) is used twice as much as the next most common (of), and three times as much as the third most common (to), and so on. The relationship works in any language – the frequency with which a word is used is proportional to its rank when you list words by how often they’re used. Zipf went on to discover that the same relationship holds not just with words but with letters and even phonemes.

Claude Shannon built on Zipf’s work to discover a way to judge whether a given sequence of sounds carried complex information. He showed we could distinguish between mindless sounds, which give no clue as to what signal comes next, and structured information. Ranking the results in terms of “Shannon entropy,” we find that dolphin sounds show an entropy level of four, a complex language but nowhere near as complex as human languages.

Painting cats

In other words, we might not know what a particular species is saying, but we can render judgments about how complex its noises are.

Some day – and Cerf is the kind of futurist who thinks about these things – we may use Shannon entropy theories to break down an extraterrestrial signal, the first question being, is this actual information, and if so, how complex is the language it is made out of?

But searching for extraterrestrial intelligence so far has come up dry. And if you don’t want to wait for the interspecies Internet to begin conversations with the creatures near you, check out another iPad tool that will let you see what’s on your cat’s mind. Paint for Cats is an app that runs a digitized mouse across the screen, prompting your cat to swat it.

The result is a splash of paint for each swipe. It’s not high-order conversation, but probing the limits of animal intelligence may become a new Net frontier.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service