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Digital Dr. Dolittle: decoding animal conversations with artificial intelligence

caption: A bee on a primrose.
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A bee on a primrose.

We could be talking to animals in the next year using AI. But are we ready?

Whenever I'm out doing field work or on a hike, I’ve not only got my eyes wide open, but my ears too. There’s a lot going on in a forest or under the sea - the sounds of nature. So many of those sounds are about communication. And some species seem more “chatty” than others. Birds and whales seem to have a lot more to say than bears or mountain lions.

Personally, I love to chat with ravens. I like to think that we have lovely conversations. I know I’m fooling myself… but there’s something happening that might change that.

There’s a tech company out of Silicon Valley that is hoping to make that dream of communicating with animals a reality. Earth Species Project is a non-profit working to develop machine learning that can decode animal language. Basically, artificial intelligence that can speak whale or monkey...or perhaps even raven?

“We are awash in meanings and signals. And what we're gonna have to do is use these brand new big telescopes of AI to discover what's been there all along,” said Aza Raskin, co-founder of Earth Species Project.

So we are doing something a bit different on The Wild today - fun to mix things up now and then. For this episode I’m not outdoors among the wild creatures, but in my home studio, talking with two fascinating people about the latest developments in technology that are being created to talk to wild animals. We’ll also explore the ethics of this technology... something Karen Bakker, a professor at the University of British Columbia, knows a lot about.

“We could lure every animal on the planet to their deaths with this technology, if it develops as Aza suggests it might,” said Bakker.

What are the downsides to playing the role of Digital Dr. Dolittle?


Aza Raskin, co-founder of Earth Species Project and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.

Karen Bakker, professor at the University of British Columbia where she researches digital innovation and environmental governance. She also leads the Smart Earth Project.

THE WILD is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan Wildlife and Wildlife Media. It is produced by Lucy Soucek and Matt Martin, and edited by Jim Gates. It is hosted, produced and written by Chris Morgan. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker.

Follow us on Instagram (@thewildpod) for more adventures and behind the scenes action!

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