interspecies collaboration
August 4, 1996

We marvel at the potential for human evolution facilitated by the internet: consider the implications if other species, such as dolphins and elephants, could use the internet too. They could learn everything we know; we could learn everything they know. We could collaborate. They could converse between themselves - the Mammal Roundtable.

Perhaps any species could learn to use the internet. This is not to say that any species is capable of reading, understanding, and writing human language - perhaps the quality of the communication will vary by species. It's impossible to tell who has the ability until they are provided with the tools to experiment. The animals in most species already possess an understanding of communication, given that they talk to each other. All creatures learn. It thus seems likely that species can learn to communicate together.

This is actually the current state of play; but the contemporary combination of simple gestures and sounds, exchanged on a 1-on-1 basis, is just not the same as joining a conversation with a trillion other lifeforms.

The essentials of interaction are as follows. Each step is critical; without moderate success at every step, communication will be impaired and discouraged.

  1. creation of the message
  2. transmission of the message
  3. reception of the message
  4. interpretation of the message
  5. feedback - back to step 1

I believe that all species have some form of ability to create and interpret - I have watched a cockroach take evasive action when I attacked it. This creative behaviour was a direct result of that cockroach observing my actions (I raised a newspaper to swipe it) and interpreting them as offensive. (It then moved, which provided me with the feedback I needed to anticipate his approximate position while I wielded the newspaper.. and I nuked the little bastard.) And this is only a cockroach!

What is missing, for more peaceful interaction, are interfaces that can be used by other species. Each animal needs input and output devices suited to its body, and suited to the environment in which it lives. In the case of the cockroach, we were in the same room together, and we could see and hear each other, so no interface was needed. Besides, I have no time for cockroaches. But if that cockroach was a dolphin, and it wanted to ask me a question... it would need a waterproof network computer with a nose-and-flipper-friendly interface. Such a device would improve the quality of transmission and reception, and consequently make interaction between species easier and more rewarding.

We share this planet with millions of other intelligent, communicative beings. Given our relative command of technology, humans can facilitate interaction between all species, by inventing species-specific interfaces, and encouraging those species to use them.

Judgement is better balanced when a diverse set of influences are drawn upon. As a planet, communicating together, we would be better positioned to sustain life. No doubt we will find there are a few grumpy old elephants and dolphins too. What better way to learn to live together?

What is needed are, for now, some simple symbols and sounds. Perhaps we could pick up the conversation with pictures of each other, and some colour-and-sound-coded navigation controls. We could show them pictures and they could show us pictures back (by choosing)... over time, some sort of common code would evolve - an inter-species language.

Perhaps extraterrestrial species could learn to speak it too.

See also: Dolphin speaks: Ditch the iPad, give me the Toughbook!