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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Teaching Dolphins Lojban ... Giving Dolphins Prosthetic Hands

A follow-up to my prior posts on cetacean intelligence...

I thought a bit about innovative ways we might be able to communicate better with our cetacean planet-mates...

1. Teach Dolphins Lojban

A couple decades ago, efforts were made to teach dolphins simple English, without dramatic success. Discussions were also had regarding creation of some sort of species-independent interlingua, which humans and dolphins could use to communicate with each other.

It occurred to me that using Lojban for that interlingua could make sense. Potentially, one could create special Lojbanic vocabulary for the shared human/dolphin environment. Lojban grammar is simple and unambiguous, and certainly has less species-specificity than any human natural language.

Also, one could create a form of Lojban "phonology" that generally follows the sound-production patterns habitually by dolphins, and speak to dolphins in this "Delphic Lojban" alongside the usual "human Lojban."

The biggest disadvantage of this approach is that it requires some human cetaceologists to learn Lojban.... But this cost seems worth paying, as the odds of success seem much higher than with human natural languages.

Note that there is no straightforward way to make a "phonologically Delphic" version of English. But because Lojban syntax is just a linearization of logical relationships, one could make a Delphic version of Lojban by translating those same logical relationships into sound in a wholly different way than is done in the human version of Lojban.

2. Give Dolphins Prosthetic Hands

Inside a dolphin's flippers, are bones that look like they should correspond to claws or fingers.

What if we created prosthetic fingers and thumbs for dolphins, and connected them to these bones ... and also connected them to the dolphin nervous system?

Admittedly, these modified dolphins would suffer impaired swimming ability, though one would hope the degree of this phenomenon could be palliated via appropriate design. (For instance, perhaps the fingers could be made retractable, so the dolphin could retract them when it wanted to swim, and extend them when it wanted to manipulate objects.)

This would be a highly experimental adventure in Brain-Computer Interfacing. But, as BCI research advances in the context of human-enhancement applications, I see no reason why it shouldn't advance in the context of dolphin-enhancement applications in parallel.

My thinking is that much of which distinguishes human intelligence from cetacean intelligence is our focus on complex manipulation of tools, and building things (including advanced phenomena like tools that make tools, etc.). If a dolphin brain self-reorganized to adapt to its prosthetic fingers, then the dolphin would have the capability to use tools in a more humanlike way.

Since the cetaceans' evolutionary progenitors had claws of some sort, there may be some vestigial neural wiring in the dolphin brain that will ease the self-reorganization that the dolphin brain needs to go through to make use of the prosthetic fingers.

Another possibility would be to build in the capability for human operators to periodically "take over" the dolphin fingers using remote control. This would serve to show the dolphin what to do with the fingers, both on the conscious reflective level, and on the level of unconscious habituation.

Of course discussions of what to build with the fingers, and how to use tools, could be carried out using Lojban (human or Delphic) ;-D


Ahhh ... all the really fascinating research that would get funded if I happened to receive a billion-dollar inheritance from some long-lost uncle ;-p


Anonymous said...

It sounds like you're not considering asking the dolphins for permission to alter their bodies.
If they're smart enough to learn Lojban, then they should qualify as persons and have the rights and privileges of persons.
Try entering their world rather than bringing them into yours.

Steven Wayne Lytle

Ben Goertzel said...

Steven: Indeed if we succeed in teaching them Lojban, we should ask their permission before experimenting with giving them hands!

Jeremy said...

Apparently, you haven't read the news lately:

Anonymous said...

A custom mouthpiece gripper could be used by many animals that naturally use their mouths to manipulate objects, without being invasive.

Is there a repository of mad science ideas somewhere, I'm sure there are plenty dying lonely not even laughed at by mad science fans, let alone having a chance for consideration by idle billionaires ;)


Ben Goertzel said...

Ben Collins: the question of "how smart are cetaceans" is much less interesting than the question of "how are they smart" ...

And of course, looking at cetaceans is not critical to my approach to AGI, which is not founded on trying to closely imitate ANY biological intelligences.

I just find it interesting to investigate general intelligence architectures besides the one we usually think about (humans).

Of course tool-building and technology are super-important to general intelligence ... but there may possibly be other aspects that are also very important to general intelligence, in which cetacea exceed us ...

Anonymous said...

that last comment (bcombined with delphic communication and mad scientist hubris) truly inspires all the content needed for an episode of the twilight zone!

Or if you are a prolific writer, a short mini-series akin to lost.

Brian Barker said...

I would personally prefer Esperanto.

Have a look at

Ben Goertzel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben Goertzel said...

Brian: But Esperanto, while it has a nicer syntax than natural language, is still more full of human-culture-specificity than Lojban. Lojban is basically a speakable form of predicate logic ... it's math for describing the everyday world ... and the value of math for communicating with alien intelligences is widely hypothesized. In fact I think we should be broadcasting information in Lojban as part of the SETI project, placing it in our interstellar space capsules, etc.

Steve Bowers said...

The fictional dolphins of Orion's Arm have been using hand-tech for millenia

but dolphin language may be a bit more difficult to translate than some may think. If it has evolved from the echolocation sense that dolphins use, it might be based on reflected shapes and range-finding data that has no analog in human speech.

lowki shomu said...

I heard from Alex Collier,
that cetaceans (dolphins included) have a trinary based language.

Also that it's been deciphered by many extra terrestrial species,
most of which are adept telepaths.

they songs they sing, is of their history, and experiences of their species.

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