Are We On the Verge of Chatting with Whales?

By Christoph Droesser.

“I don’t know much about whales. I have never seen a whale in my life,” says Michael Bronstein. The Israeli computer scientist, teaching at Imperial College London, England, might not seem the ideal candidate for a project involving the communication of sperm whales. But his skills as an expert in machine learning could be key to an ambitious endeavor that officially started in March 2020: an interdisciplinary group of scientists wants to use artificial intelligence (AI) to decode the language of these marine mammals. If Project CETI (for Cetacean Translation Initiative) succeeds, it would be the first time that we actually understand what animals are chatting about—and maybe we could even have a conversation with them.

It started in 2017 when an international group of scientists spent a year together at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the Radcliffe Fellowship, a program that promises “an opportunity to step away from usual routines.” One day, Shafi Goldwasser, a computer scientist and cryptography expert also from Israel, came by the office of David Gruber, a marine biologist at City University of New York.