Learning to listen
The prospect of ongoing, two-way dialogue with other species remains unknown. But true conversation will require a number of “prerequisites,” including matching intelligence types, compatible sensory systems and, crucially, a shared desire to chat, said Natalie Uomini, an expert on cognitive evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
“There has to be the motivation on both sides to want to communicate,” she said.
Even then, some animals may have experiences that are so different from our own that some ideas simply get lost in translation. “For example, we have a concept of ‘getting wet,’” Dr. Bronstein said. “I think whales would not even be able ever to understand what it means.”
These experiments may also raise ethical issues, experts acknowledge. “If you find patterns in animals that allow you to understand their communication, that opens the door to manipulating their communications,” Mr. Mustill said.
But the technology could also be deployed for the benefit of animals, helping experts monitor the welfare of both wild and domestic fauna. Scientists also said that they hoped that by providing new insight into animal lives, this research might prompt a broader societal shift. Many pointed to the galvanizing effect of the 1970 album “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” which featured recordings of otherworldly whale calls and has been widely credited with helping to spark the global Save the Whales movement.
The biologist Roger Payne, who produced that album, is now part of Project CETI. And many scientists said they hoped these new, high-tech efforts to understand the vocalizations of whales — and crows and bats and even naked mole rats — will be similarly transformative, providing new ways to connect with and understand the creatures with whom we share the planet.
“It’s not what the whales are saying that matters to me,” Dr. Gruber said. “It’s the fact that we’re listening.”