Whale songs have features of language, but whales may not be speaking
Whale songs have features of language, but whales may not be speaking

Enlarge (credit: wildestanimal)

Whales use complex communication systems we still don’t understand, a trope exploited in sci-fi shows like Apple TV’s Extrapolations. That show featured a humpback whale (voiced by Meryl Streep) discussing Mahler’s symphonies with a human researcher via some AI-powered inter-species translation app developed in 2046.

We’re a long way from that future. But a team of MIT researchers has now analyzed a database of Caribbean sperm whales’ calls and has found there really is a contextual and combinatorial structure in there. But does it mean whales have a human-like language and we can just wait until Chat GPT 8.0 to figure out how to translate from English to Sperm-Whaleish? Not really.

One-page dictionary

“Sperm whales communicate using clicks. These clicks occur in short packets we call codas that typically last less than two seconds, containing three to 40 clicks,” said Pratyusha Sharma, a researcher at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the lead author of the study. Her team argues that codas are analogues of words in human language and are further organized in coda sequences that are analogues of sentences. “Sperm whales are not born with this communication system; it’s acquired and changes over the course of time,” Sharma said.

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