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June 14-20, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Laptops for Dolphins

By Annalee Newitz

I HAVE TWO really good ideas, but only one of them involves dolphins. For weeks, I've been obsessing over a recent study showing that dolphins use nouns. Researchers have known for a while that many dolphins have special "signature whistles" that only one individual uses. They also copy each other's whistles in the wild, repeating the same "phrases" back to each other. What's spooky about this new study is that a group of marine biologists proved that these "signature whistles" are, in fact, names.

First, the scientists had to prove that dolphin whistles aren't like birdsong, which is often unique to an individual bird but doesn't refer to other specific birds or objects. Birdsong identifies the bird who is singing, but other birds don't pick up the song and use it to identify the singer as well. Dolphins do.

The researchers proved this by recording a dolphin's "signature whistle," transforming the tone and playing it back to see if the dolphin in question responded to his "name." What they were doing could be compared to repeating the dolphin's name in a different voice. And it worked. Dolphins hearing their signature whistles in a different voice responded by turning toward the speakers emitting them. "Dolphins are the only animals other than humans that have been shown to transmit identity information independent of the caller's voice or location," write our understated marine biologists in the summary of their findings. Translation: Like people, dolphins identify each other with sounds that remain the same regardless of who is speaking or where they are.

When you think about it that way, don't you wonder why there isn't a group of graduate students trying to translate dolphin language? I mean, now that we know they have names for each other, shouldn't we be trying to communicate with them? And shouldn't we stop keeping them in cages and training them to jump through hoops? Here's my idea: Let's decode dolphin syntax so we can figure out what our slippery mammal pals want. My fear is that we won't actually acknowledge that dolphins have language until they build guns, shove them down our throats and say, "Listen to me, motherfucker!" in dolphin whistles.

That brings me to my second great idea: Making sure that those $100 laptops dreamed up by former head of MIT's Media Lab Nicholas Negroponte actually get into the hands of people in the developing world. Humanitarian geeks have long sought to build a $100 laptop that would be versatile and rugged enough to get shipped in mass quantities all over the world to equalize access to computers and the Internet.

Now, thanks to Negroponte's foundation, One Laptop per Child, has made these cheap little devices a reality. Demo'd last week at MIT, they come loaded with open-source operating system Fedora Linux and WiFi, and they're powered by a hand-turned crank—no electrical outlets are necessary.

Part of the reason these laptops exist is just plain old genetically hard-wired human altruism. There are lots of people like Negroponte who want to help kids in impoverished areas gain access to new communications technologies. But let's face it, my dolphin brothers and sisters, there's another reason, too. It's because people in developing nations have guns. On my bad days, when I'm thinking about dolphins calling each other's names from performance pits at Sea World, I sometimes wonder if the only reason people with money want to pass out nifty gadgets to poor kids is because they're afraid of the guns those kids' parents carry. If dolphins had AK-47s, we would definitely have a marine biology laptop-dissemination strategy. "Hey, put down those guns," our researchers would say to the dolphins in whistle-language. "We have some nice laptops for you!"

In a less speculative vein, however, I still wonder about the likelihood of the $100 laptops reaching the people who need them. Will teachers come with the laptops? What difference will it make to a kid in an African village if she has WiFi? Are we planning to give some of them to the victims of Hurricane Katrina? I don't want these laptops to be just another humanitarian publicity stunt in which the developed world demonstrates its goodwill but never follows through.

But I don't have a lot of hope. We are, after all, a species that is known for doing things like discovering that dolphins have language but not bothering to change our behavior as a result.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is waiting for the first dolphin localization of Linux.

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