News Science and space 05-09-2024 at 16:23 comment views icon

What are whales singing about? ML analysis reveals «deeper» than expected meaning of conversations and use of a separate alphabet

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Kateryna Danshyna

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What are whales singing about? ML analysis reveals «deeper» than expected meaning of conversations and use of a separate alphabet

A study of whale language using machine learning has revealed a complex phonetic system that suggests cetaceans can talk to each other just like humans.

A research article by MIT specialists titled «Contextual and combinatorial structure of sperm whale voices» was published this week in the journal Nature and presented the results of a study of the sounds made by sperm whales in the Caribbean using simple machine learning algorithms

The analysis revealed a complex sound system and codes that were much more complicated than previously thought. The meaning of the conversations is still unknown, but they are quite detailed and probably based on a separate phonetic alphabet.

«Like the International Phonetic Alphabet for human languages, this «Sperm Whale Phonetic Alphabet» shows how small variations give rise to a diverse set of phonemes (in humans) or code (in sperm whales)», — the article says.

While human sounds are categorized based on where they are formed in the mouth and whether the vocal cords vibrate, whales use a combination of rhythm and tempo. Other variables include rubato (changing the intervals between clicks) and ornamentation (adding an extra click to a coda).

It should be remembered that human sounds are not completely analogous to whale sounds. MIT researcher Jacob Andreas explained to The Register, that «the underlying physiological processes are quite different code is also much longer than a typical human phoneme.

«The number of codas corresponds to the number of phonemes in some languages, but we don’t really know if a coda is a phoneme, or a word, or a sentence, or something else. There is a lot in these vocalizations (whales singing together) that is quite different from all human language. It will still be necessary to characterize what information these vocalizations carry, which is the next big area we are moving in,» Andreas said.

In general, all future research on both animal and human languages can be enhanced by artificial intelligence. Despite the fact that our communication system is better understood, there are still many unanswered questions — such as whether there was one original human language or whether our brains have a universal grammar (the biological basis of language theorized by linguist Noam Chomsky).

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