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Decoding animal language – a “Web 2.x” opportunity?

June 24, 2008

I awoke this morning to the sound of our malamute mix barking out an exchange with some other dog in the distance.   The number of barks, the timing, and the characteristics of each varied, yet seemed purposeful.    Some started out rather guttural – a bit of a hesitant growl turned bark, while others were shorter and more abrupt sounds uttered in combination.  After each set of barks, the dog would seem to pause and await the response.

This pattern seemed to suggest the barking was more deliberate than mere utterance of random sounds in that it was varied, patterned, and because it appeared to coincide with the response from the distant dog.

Human language translation tools have proliferated online – Babel fishSystran, and countless more …

I wonder if enough animals of a certain species – dogs, cats, etc were studied – their behaviors captured on video and their utterances digitized – could we borrow from the principles of cryptography to divine their language? 

Perhaps such an effort could be led by researchers at a university, and organized and powered via the internet.   A web site could established as a global base of operations, a template for data capture could be downloaded, and audio / video samples submitted.    The data could then be parsed and tagged for pattern matching.  Some members of the community could collaborate with the research leads to develop the algorithms to run against the data.  

Perhaps more broadly, what is the next phase of organized human co-operation online, beyond all the loose association of social networks that comprise “Web 2.0”?  Think grid computing, but with people.  What site, tool, or structural concept could meaningfully organize and harness the collective creativity and intellect of humanity in some focused problem solving?

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