Written by Daniel Latto in Latest News

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  • TED: The interspecies internet? An idea in progress – Peter Gabriel / Neil Gershenfeld / Diana Reiss / Vint Cerf (2013)
December 18, 2013

Diana Reiss: You may think you’re looking through a window at a dolphin spinning playfully, but what you’re actually looking through is a two-way mirror at a dolphin looking at itself spinning playfully. This is a dolphin that is self-aware. This dolphin has self-awareness. It’s a young dolphin named Bayley.

I’ve been very interested in understanding the nature of the intelligence of dolphins for the past 30 years. How do we explore intelligence in this animal that’s so different from us? And what I’ve used is a very simple research tool, a mirror, and we’ve gained great information, reflections of these animal minds. Dolphins aren’t the only animals, the only non-human animals, to show mirror self-recognition. We used to think this was a uniquely human ability, but we learned that the great apes, our closest relatives, also show this ability. Then we showed it in dolphins, and then later in elephants. We did this work in my lab with the dolphins and elephants, and it’s been recently shown in the magpie.

Now, it’s interesting, because we’ve embraced this Darwinian view of a continuity in physical evolution, this physical continuity. But we’ve been much more reticent, much slower at recognizing this continuity in cognition, in emotion, in consciousness in other animals. Other animals are conscious. They’re emotional. They’re aware. There have been multitudes of studies with many species over the years that have given us exquisite evidence for thinking and consciousness in other animals, other animals that are quite different than we are in form. We are not alone. We are not alone in these abilities. And I hope, and one of my biggest dreams, is that, with our growing awareness about the consciousness of others and our relationship with the rest of the animal world, that we’ll give them the respect and protection that they deserve. So that’s a wish I’m throwing out here for everybody, and I hope I can really engage you in this idea.

Now, I want to return to dolphins, because these are the animals that I feel like I’ve been working up closely and personal with for over 30 years. And these are real personalities. They are not persons, but they’re personalities in every sense of the word. And you can’t get more alien than the dolphin. They are very different from us in body form. They’re radically different. They come from a radically different environment. In fact, we’re separated by 95 million years of divergent evolution. Look at this body. And in every sense of making a pun here, these are true non-terrestrials.

I wondered how we might interface with these animals. In the 1980s, I developed an underwater keyboard. This was a custom-made touch-screen keyboard. What I wanted to do was give the dolphins choice and control. These are big brains, highly social animals, and I thought, well, if we give them choice and control, if they can hit a symbol on this keyboard — and by the way, it was interfaced by fiber optic cables from Hewlett-Packard with an Apple II computer. This seems prehistoric now, but this was where we were with technology. So the dolphins could hit a key, a symbol, they heard a computer-generated whistle, and they got an object or activity.

Now here’s a little video. This is Delphi and Pan, and you’re going to see Delphi hitting a key, he hears a computer-generated whistle — (Whistle) — and gets a ball, so they can actually ask for things they want. What was remarkable is, they explored this keyboard on their own. There was no intervention on our part. They explored the keyboard. They played around with it. They figured out how it worked. And they started to quickly imitate the sounds they were hearing on the keyboard. They imitated on their own. Beyond that, though, they started learning associations between the symbols, the sounds and the objects.

What we saw was self-organized learning, and now I’m imagining, what can we do with new technologies? How can we create interfaces, new windows into the minds of animals, with the technologies that exist today?

So I was thinking about this, and then, one day, I got a call from Peter.

Peter Gabriel: I make noises for a living. On a good day, it’s music, and I want to talk a little bit about the most amazing music-making experience I ever had.

I’m a farm boy. I grew up surrounded by animals, and I would look in these eyes and wonder what was going on there? So as an adult, when I started to read about the amazing breakthroughs with Penny Patterson and Koko, with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Kanzi, Panbanisha, Irene Pepperberg, Alex the parrot, I got all excited. What was amazing to me also was they seemed a lot more adept at getting a handle on our language than we were on getting a handle on theirs. I work with a lot of musicians from around the world, and often we don’t have any common language at all, but we sit down behind our instruments, and suddenly there’s a way for us to connect and emote.

So I started cold-calling, and eventually got through to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and she invited me down. I went down, and the bonobos had had access to percussion instruments, musical toys, but never before to a keyboard. At first they did what infants do, just bashed it with their fists, and then I asked, through Sue, if Panbanisha could try with one finger only.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh: Can you play a grooming song? I want to hear a grooming song. Play a real quiet grooming song.

PG: So groom was the subject of the piece.

(Music) So I’m just behind, jamming, yeah, this is what we started with. Sue’s encouraging her to continue a little more.


She discovers a note she likes, finds the octave. She’d never sat at a keyboard before. Nice triplets.

SSR: You did good. That was very good.

PG: She hit good.


So that night, we began to dream, and we thought, perhaps the most amazing tool that man’s created is the Internet, and what would happen if we could somehow find new interfaces, visual-audio interfaces that would allow these remarkable sentient beings that we share the planet with access? And Sue Savage-Rumbaugh got excited about that, called her friend Steve Woodruff, and we began hustling all sorts of people whose work related or was inspiring, which led us to Diana, and led us to Neil.

Neil Gershenfeld: Thanks, Peter. PG: Thank you.


NG: So Peter approached me. I lost it when I saw that clip. He approached me with a vision of doing these things not for people, for animals.

And then I was struck in the history of the Internet. This is what the Internet looked like when it was born and you can call that the Internet of middle-aged white men, mostly middle-aged white men.

Vint Cerf: (Laughs)


NG: Speaking as one. Then, when I first came to TED, which was where I met Peter, I showed this. This is a $1 web server, and at the time that was radical. And the possibility of making a web server for a dollar grew into what became known as the Internet of Things, which is literally an industry now with tremendous implications for health care, energy efficiency. And we were happy with ourselves. And then when Peter showed me that, I realized we had missed something, which is the rest of the planet. So we started up this interspecies Internet project. Now we started talking with TED about how you bring dolphins and great apes and elephants to TED, and we realized that wouldn’t work. So we’re going to bring you to them. So if we could switch to the audio from this computer, we’ve been video conferencing with cognitive animals, and we’re going to have each of them just briefly introduce them. And so if we could also have this up, great.

So the first site we’re going to meet is Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, with orangutans. In the daytime they live outside. It’s nighttime there now. So can you please go ahead?

Terri Cox: Hi, I’m Terri Cox with the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas, and with me I have KeraJaan and Mei, two of our Bornean orangutans. During the day, they have a beautiful, large outdoor habitat, and at night, they come into this habitat, into their night quarters, where they can have a climate-controlled and secure environment to sleep in. We participate in the Apps for Apes program Orangutan Outreach, and we use iPads to help stimulate and enrich the animals, and also help raise awareness for these critically endangered animals. And they share 97 percent of our DNA and are incredibly intelligent, so it’s so exciting to think of all the opportunities that we have via technology and the Internet to really enrich their lives and open up their world. We’re really excited about the possibility of an interspecies Internet, and K.J. has been enjoying the conference very much.

NG: That’s great. When we were rehearsing last night, he had fun watching the elephants. Next user group are the dolphins at the National Aquarium. Please go ahead.

Allison Ginsburg: Good evening. Well, my name is Allison Ginsburg, and we’re live in Baltimore at the National Aquarium. Joining me are three of our eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins: 20-year-old Chesapeake, who was our first dolphin born here, her four-year-old daughter Bayley, and her half sister, 11-year-old Maya. Now, here at the National Aquarium we are committed to excellence in animal care, to research, and to conservation. The dolphins are pretty intrigued as to what’s going on here tonight. They’re not really used to having cameras here at 8 o’clock at night. In addition, we are very committed to doing different types of research. As Diana mentioned, our animals are involved in many different research studies.

NG: Those are for you. Okay, that’s great, thank you. And the third user group, in Thailand, is Think Elephants. Go ahead, Josh.

Josh Plotnik: Hi, my name is Josh Plotnik, and I’m with Think Elephants International, and we’re here in the Golden Triangle of Thailand with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation elephants. And we have 26 elephants here, and our research is focused on the evolution of intelligence with elephants, but our foundation Think Elephants is focused on bringing elephants into classrooms around the world virtually like this and showing people how incredible these animals are. So we’re able to bring the camera right up to the elephant, put food into the elephant’s mouth, show people what’s going on inside their mouths, and show everyone around the world how incredible these animals really are.

NG: Okay, that’s great. Thanks Josh. And once again, we’ve been building great relationships among them just since we’ve been rehearsing. So at that point, if we can go back to the other computer, we were starting to think about how you integrate the rest of the biomass of the planet into the Internet, and we went to the best possible person I can think of, which is Vint Cerf, who is one of the founders who gave us the Internet. Vint?

VC: Thank you, Neil.


A long time ago in a galaxy — oops, wrong script. Forty years ago, Bob Kahn and I did the design of the Internet. Thirty years ago, we turned it on. Just last year, we turned on the production Internet. You’ve been using the experimental version for the last 30 years. The production version, it uses IP version 6. It has 3.4 times 10 to the 38th possible terminations. That’s a number only that Congress can appreciate. But it leads to what is coming next. When Bob and I did this design, we thought we were building a system to connect computers together. What we very quickly discovered is that this was a system for connecting people together. And what you’ve seen tonight tells you that we should not restrict this network to one species, that these other intelligent, sentient species should be part of the system too. This is the system as it looks today, by the way. This is what the Internet looks like to a computer that’s trying to figure out where the traffic is supposed to go. This is generated by a program that’s looking at the connectivity of the Internet, and how all the various networks are connected together. There are about 400,000 networks, interconnected, run independently by 400,000 different operating agencies, and the only reason this works is that they all use the same standard TCP/IP protocols.

Well, you know where this is headed. The Internet of Things tell us that a lot of computer-enabled appliances and devices are going to become part of this system too: appliances that you use around the house, that you use in your office, that you carry around with yourself or in the car. That’s the Internet of Things that’s coming. Now, what’s important about what these people are doing is that they’re beginning to learn how to communicate with species that are not us but share a common sensory environment. We’re beginning to explore what it means to communicate with something that isn’t just another person. Well, you can see what’s coming next. All kinds of possible sentient beings may be interconnected through this system, and I can’t wait to see these experiments unfold.

What happens after that? Well, let’s see. There are machines that need to talk to machines and that we need to talk to, and so as time goes on, we’re going to have to learn how to communicate with computers and how to get computers to communicate with us in the way that we’re accustomed to, not with keyboards, not with mice, but with speech and gestures and all the natural human language that we’re accustomed to. So we’ll need something like C3PO to become a translator between ourselves and some of the other machines we live with.

Now, there is a project that’s underway called the interplanetary Internet. It’s in operation between Earth and Mars. It’s operating on the International Space Station. It’s part of the spacecraft that’s in orbit around the Sun that’s rendezvoused with two planets. So the interplanetary system is on its way, but there’s a last project, which the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funded the original ARPANET, funded the Internet, funded the interplanetary architecture, is now funding a project to design a spacecraft to get to the nearest star in 100 years’ time. What that means is that what we’re learning with these interactions with other species will teach us, ultimately, how we might interact with an alien from another world. I can hardly wait.


June Cohen: So first of all, thank you, and I would like to acknowledge that four people who could talk to us for full four days actually managed to stay to four minutes each, and we thank you for that.

I have so many questions, but maybe a few practical things that the audience might want to know. You’re launching this idea here at TED — PG: Today.

JC: Today. This is the first time you’re talking about it. Tell me a little bit about where you’re going to take the idea. What’s next?

PG: I think we want to engage as many people here as possible in helping us think of smart interfaces that will make all this possible.

NG: And just mechanically, there’s a 501(c)(3) and web infrastructure and all of that, but it’s not quite ready to turn on, so we’ll roll that out, and contact us if you want the information on it. The idea is this will be — much like the Internet functions as a network of networks, which is Vint’s core contribution, this will be a wrapper around all of these initiatives, that are wonderful individually, to link them globally.

JC: Right, and do you have a web address that we might look for yet?

NG: Shortly. JC: Shortly. We will come back to you on that.

And very quickly, just to clarify. Some people might have looked at the video that you showed and thought, well, that’s just a webcam. What’s special about it? If you could talk for just a moment about how you want to go past that?

NG: So this is scalable video infrastructure, not for a few to a few but many to many, so that it scales to symmetrical video sharing and content sharing across these sites around the planet. So there’s a lot of back-end signal processing, not for one to many, but for many to many.

JC: Right, and then on a practical level, which technologies are you looking at first? I know you mentioned that a keyboard is a really key part of this.

DR: We’re trying to develop an interactive touch screen for dolphins. This is sort of a continuation of some of the earlier work, and we just got our first seed money today towards that, so it’s our first project.

JC: Before the talk, even. DR: Yeah.

JC: Wow. Well done. All right, well thank you all so much for joining us. It’s such a delight to have you on the stage.

DR: Thank you. VC: Thank you.


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