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

I can haz Tuna

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Dolphins are being taught to use computers to communicate with humans. A human-cetacean translation tool will be demonstrated in early 2011 - with hardware supplied by Panasonic and its range of Toughbook laptops.

Jack Kassewitz, 63, co-founder of SpeakDolphin, a Miami-based group that conducts dolphin research, originally purchased an Apple iPad for the task but found it entirely impractical.

To the rescue, a representative from Panasonic who saw the iPad in use. Surprise, surprise, he recommended the Toughbook and lent three devices to SpeakDolphin to speed the organisation's research.

Panasonic Toughbook Dolphin

I wanna play Echo, this isn't a Mega Drive!

According to Kassewitz, Panasonic was "the jet-fuel to launch this rocket". The Toughbook's ability to multitask, get wet and be seen in bright sunlight allowed the project to evolve, he said. The Toughbooks also removed a noticeable fear associated with potential tech damage - a big factor in the dolphins' willingness to take part, apparently.

The first step involved to create the translation tool is a cognitive game where dolphins are shown items in real life, then asked to identify them on the screen. While a mental connection is made, sounds and actions are recorded and associated with each symbol.

This shows that dolphins can understand "artificial" language, but does it mean that they have a language of their own? This is a highly contentious subject, but Kassewitz is convinced that his research will prove that dolphins do have a language - with vocabulary and syntax - rather than simply communicate emotional states to each other through sounds and body language.

In his view, dolphins can communicate in a language almost as complex as those used by humans - made more difficult to determine by the presence of dialects. However, an intricate language can be analysed. When two different dolphins are shown an uncharted object - a flower pot, for example - the response is almost identical and different from other sounds.

I'm sorry, would you repeat that?

Another sign of dolphin intellect is drawn from their musical ability, Kassewitz says. When he played the flute, the dolphins repeated the 290 notes in his performance sequentially, albeit in "dolphin tongue", he says. But is this an example of, admittedly impressive, mimicry?

Not so, Kassewitz claims. When the sounds were correlated, it became clear that dolphins often created their own music too, complete with chords and musical structure, he says. Kassewitz enlisted the help of some graduate students and transposed some dolphin music to human ears. This MP3 sound clip features the original dolphin sounds layered over the final piece.

SpeakDolphin has built a database and developed a program to make sense of the dolphin sounds in real time. Kassewitz says this is almost ready for demonstration and by 2011 we'll officially talk to the dolphins.

DolphinSpeak

What's he spouting off about now?

We want Flipper!

SpeakDolphin has enlisted the help of Greenaway Marine, a UK company, to build a 55in underwater screen, which will be remotely-controlled by a Toughbook. The dolphins will then have their own underwater entertainment system and a choice of what they want to view. I suspect they'll have the intellect to switch it off if the X-factor comes on though. ®

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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