Peter Gabriel's 'Interspecies Internet'

Jul 9, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 1:54 pm

The internet helps to connects people all over the world, but what if the internet could also connect dolphins, apes, elephants and other species with one another — and also with us?

That’s the goal of computer scientist Neil Gershenfeld. Gershenfeld — who runs the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT — is partnering with Vince Cerf, one of the founders of the internet, cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss and musician Peter Gabriel to create an interspecies internet.

“If you think about these animals as self-aware, interspecies internet covers the same range we use the internet for.”
–Neil Gershenfeld

The goal is to further develop knowledge of animal cognition, provide enrichment for captive animals and facilitate communication between species.

Reiss has trained dolphins to use underwater keyboards to talk to humans. Gabriel has worked with primates to play remote duets on electronic keyboards. (See videos below)

Gabriel remembers a particular bonobo with whom he improvised.

“I found that when I just played some simple chords and just sang whatever melody came to my mind, she would sort of get into the mood, in the groove, and respond,” Gabriel said. “She’s still finding patterns within in the keyboard, which would indicate some intelligence.”

Gershenfeld says the idea that humans are the only species with consciousness is “a human vanity.” Researchers have found that animals have self-awareness and cognitive abilities.

“If you think about these animals as self-aware, interspecies internet covers the same range we use the internet for,” Gershenfeld said.

Gabriel says the work is only scratching the surface of what’s possible. In the near future, Gabriel sees the architects of the interspecies internet developing “interfaces that allow other cognitive species to show exactly who they are and how smart they are.”

Gershenfeld says perhaps one day, the interspecies internet may lead to an intergalactic internet — a way for humans to communicate with aliens.

A female bonobo plays a computerized keyboard
The dolphins portray keyboard tool use and vocal learning
A mentor dolphin uses the keyboard tool


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Well, animal rights activists had a big win recently when the National Institutes of Health said that because reports showed that almost no medical research on chimpanzees is necessary, they will retire most of theirs. There's a great story in the New York Times today. But our next guest might say begin new research, research that won't harm animals, that maybe open up a whole new world for them.

They are pushing for an interspecies Internet, that's right, animals talking to each other and to humans online. Musician Peter Gabriel began playing with animals with instruments, and then discovered others communicating with them with computers. He took his Internet idea to Neil Gershenfeld, who runs MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and is a leader in building things using computers.

Neil and Peter gave a recent TED Talk on the idea of creating an interspecies Internet. It's not yet posted, but lucky us, we can hear about it today. Neil Gershenfeld joins us in the studio. Neil, welcome back.

NEIL GERSHENFELD: Pleased to be here.

YOUNG: Peter Gabriel joins us from London. Peter, welcome to you, as well.

PETER GABRIEL: Thanks very much, Robin.

YOUNG: And let's start with you. What was your original interest in an interspecies Internet?

GABRIEL: Well, I've been fascinated at some of the reports on animals learning our language, and one of the things that was curious to me was that they seemed more adept at learning how to communicate in our language than we were in communicating in theirs. And one of the things we noticed working with musicians from all around the world is often when we didn't share any common language, we could sit down and make noises together, and we'd find a way to communicate.

So I began some cold calling to some of these places that had worked with apes, it was, particularly at that point, and spoke to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who was at the Language Research Laboratory in Atlanta. And when I just threw the idea out at her, she said come on down. And the experience for me was mind-blowing.

It was - it took a little while. You know, first they'd been familiar with sort of percussion instruments, but no one had really put them on a keyboard before. And I was working particularly with this wonderful bonobo called Panbanisha, who was there with her baby, and she was I think, of the apes that I play the most, sort of sensitive and responsive.

And we asked her in the end to play with just one finger. Of course she put her own spin on that and took that as two one fingers, but then she began to improvise. And that is on the tape that you've seen and heard.

YOUNG: Well, in fact I have because Neil showed it to me, and it blew my mind. And when you showed it to him, it blew his. Neil Gershenfeld, you've got it here. Rack this tape up. This is a mother bonobo. Peter's off-camera, but you can hear him, as well. And Peter, we see there's her one finger going to the keys.


YOUNG: As we listen, there she's playing.


YOUNG: Now what are you playing in the background, Peter?

GABRIEL: I'm just improvising. I mean, we tried a number of things, but I found when I just played some simple chords and just sang whatever melody came into my mind that she would sort of get in the mood, in the groove and respond.


YOUNG: Neil, when you first saw this, somebody's who's long studied the Internet and this idea of intelligence, what was your first thought?

GERSHENFELD: Oh, it blew me away. I had no idea why Peter was talking to me.


GERSHENFELD: We would run into each other at interesting global gatherings, and he started talking about interspecies Internet, lovely idea. I didn't know how I fit in. But as I came to understand it, it was just this deep connection. What I've been interested in is how digital and physical relate, and I did a lot of work with some of the early Internet architects in what became called the Internet of Things, how you connect the Internet into the physical world.

And so Internet in Things started almost as a joke but became very, very serious. As Peter showed this to me, clearly there's an intelligence being contacted, being mediated through the technology. And so it's a very natural step from Internet of Things to interspecies Internet. When you think about the Internet, we forgot a major part of the planet, the cognitive species.

YOUNG: Well, in fact you say middle-aged white men, kind of the Internet, and thought it was going to be computers talking to computers, but in fact it was people talking to people. But in fact that still leaves out a lot.

GERSHENFELD: Yeah, and so in turn it turns out that both Peter and I were talking to a mutual colleague, Diana Reiss. She's known for showing animals have self-awareness. And one of the neat ways you can do it is by having the animal look at themselves in a mirror and putting a mark and seeing if they look at the mark as being on them.

And so that then led to a project, and I'll play a little clip for you where she built a keyboard that let dolphins use a keyboard and through that learned language. In the clip I'll play for you, it's a dolphin talking to a computer.


GERSHENFELD: So what you just heard was a computer was making sounds that are new to the dolphin, and then the dolphin using the keyboard is learning what they do and answering back to the computer.

YOUNG: So the dolphin finds the key on the computer?

GERSHENFELD: On an underwater special keyboard and learns to use the keyboard and also through that, like Peter's learning a language with the bonobos in their language, in a sense what Diana's doing is using the computer to mediate human-dolphin communication using the dolphin's language.

So around then, Peter, you were starting to talk to Diana also?

GABRIEL: Yeah, I was just starting to try and hustle people and get them interested in this crazy idea.

GERSHENFELD: What we realized is an interspecies Internet is literal. One reason is enrichment, animals in captivity expanding their horizon. One is meaningful, it's communication, person to animal, animal to animal. One is conservation, appreciating where animals are. One is research, understanding what they do.

If you think about the range of ways we use the Internet, and if you think about these animals are self-aware, interspecies Internet really covers the same range of applications we use the Internet for.

YOUNG: MIT's Neil Gershenfeld, and from London Peter Gabriel, talking about their hopes for an interspecies internet. We're going to have more after the break.


And a quick note, coming up later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: Are opponents of ousted Egyptian Mohammed Morsi now willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses? That's later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We're back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.


YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. Later in the hour, the death of a citizen journalist in Syria. But we're talking with musician Peter Gabriel and MIT's Neil Gershenfeld, who are hoping to create an interspecies Internet, a wild idea they gave a TED Talk about with Hunter College animal psychologist Diana Reiss and Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet.

We just heard Peter explaining that he came to this idea after playing a duet with a bonobo, a chimpanzee, and wondered if you can communicate with animals with computerized instruments, why not online? He approached animal experts, who'd already been communicating with animals through computer. Then he approached Neil Gershenfeld about the Internet part.

And Peter, let's pick up on something that you just said, that the bonobo was responding to you. How do you know she was responding to you and not just touching the keyboard the way she might flick at an ant on an anthill?

GABRIEL: Sure, there's absolutely no evidence. I just play it to a lot of musicians. And there were moments that were alive and moments of the interaction that were dead. And this is something that as an improvising musician you really get very familiar with. There's a point where she finds an octave. Now, she's been exposed to a keyboard before, but she becomes fascinated in it and repeats it.


GABRIEL: There's another point where she sort of finds different harmonies to what I'm doing with the voice.


GABRIEL: These may be chance occurrences, but I think the more of them that there are, and there were plenty of them, the less likely it is that they are chance. And I just think, you know, we're right in the Ice Age. We're just scratching the surface, and it's - we're going to have a lot of smart people, I hope, that become interested in this and become really good at designing interfaces that allow other cognitive species to show exactly who they are and how smart they are.

GERSHENFELD: Yeah, I was just going to note, I think one of the most interesting signs of how collaborative this is, is after that experience, Peter brought another well-known rock musician. This one was used to people playing along with him, not him playing along with other people. And it didn't work. The bonobos didn't follow him because he wasn't following them. The behavior you saw came only from the collaboration.

YOUNG: Oh, who was the other musician?

GABRIEL: There have been actually quite a few, but it's just, I think it's just - you know, I went, I don't know, four or five times. And so they were familiar with me. There was a sort of a relationship of trust built up. And I'd learnt to listen. And that I think is the fundamental - well, it's a pretty fundamental thing in music - but in terms of getting these relationships to work, you've got to try and serve the other person's creativity rather than lead it.

I say person, the other species.


GERSHENFELD: And that's what really struck me. It was really a mediated communication that doesn't work through the English language, but the technology allows this very different kind of communication. And so then that grew into this lovely collaboration with Peter, with Diana, the cognitive scientist. And her key point is that it's a human vanity that consciousness discontinuously appeared with us.

All the research is showing consciousness emerged continuously, and the cognitive species share many of the attributes of self-awareness we have. In turn, I was doing a program on the future of the Internet with Vint Cerf, who is the father of the Internet, and found...

YOUNG: Vice president at Google, yeah.

GERSHENFELD: And found he's on the board of the gorilla foundation. And he got very interested, and really his driving interest, once you strip everything away, is he's interested in intergalactic Internet and ultimately interspecies Internet to be ready to talk to aliens is a very serious question.

YOUNG: Well, as we said, Neil Gershenfeld comes here to help us look into the future. But Peter, you know, in a way it's sort of peering into the past, as well. I'm thinking of how your music, I just have had some songs running in my head. I'm thinking of "In Your Eyes." They have a primal feel to them.

GABRIEL: You say it feels old, and it really felt like I had resurrected my ancestors and was playing music with them. There was something quite extraordinary about it, and she was very sort of tender and open and expressive. And then what was funny is her brother came in next. He's used to being the star, you know, typical alpha male. And he was getting pissed off at all the attention his sister was getting.

So he comes in never having sat at this keyboard before or to my knowledge at any keyboard before and so throws down his blanket like James Brown discarding one of his cloaks and then does this, you know, fantastic sort of triplet improvisation.


GABRIEL: We're just making the new steps into a new continent of this interaction between other species but treating them as intelligence. As Neil said, I think we've had extraordinary arrogance in the way we dismiss and use other species, and when we imagine that if aliens do exist that they come and visit us, we expect them to treat us as smart creatures that are worth listening to. And I would ask, you mean like we have with the other species on this planet?

GERSHENFELD: What we realized is an interspecies Internet is literal. One reason is enrichment, animals in captivity expanding their horizon. One is meaningful, it's communication, person to animal, animal to animal. One is conservation, appreciating where animals are. One is research, understanding what they do. If you think about the range of ways we use the Internet, and if you think about these animals are self-aware, interspecies Internet really covers the same range of applications we use the Internet for.

YOUNG: OK, quick question. What about those who say the Internet is dehumanizing us. Why are we imposing it on animals?

GABRIEL: You know, I think if you look at a lot of technology, you'll find the first wave dehumanizes. The second wave, if it's got good feedback and smart designers, can super-humanize.

GERSHENFELD: To pick up on that, I don't think it's up to us to decide. I think they should decide, and what we've been finding is they really like it.

GABRIEL: Yeah, and are we right to deprive them of access to the most extraordinary - these are evolutionary tools in human terms. Why should they just be accessed by us? If they choose not to use it - but I think, you know, if you look at, say, search, you know, it's always been, say, language based up to now. But now there are new tools that are going to provide, sort of, visual or audio elements, and they're going to have all sorts of means without having to understand our text of being able to navigate.

And I just would love as many intelligent species as are interested and are able to get access and to be able to explore the Internet in exactly the same way we do.

YOUNG: That's musician Peter Gabriel. We're also speaking with Neil Gershenfeld of MIT Center for Bits and Atoms about their TED Talk on an interspecies Internet. Neil, Peter, thanks so much for sharing it with us, fascinating.

GABRIEL: Thanks a lot. Thanks for your interest.

GERSHENFELD: Great to talk to you and Peter.


YOUNG: And as we play, arguably, one of the world's greatest songs, what do you think? Your thoughts on an interspecies Internet. Have they lost their minds, or are they on to the real something? At

HOBSON: I'm going to think differently now every time I hear this song or "Sledgehammer" or any other Peter Gabriel song. It's so amazing that he's into this.

YOUNG: Thinking of him, looking into the eyes of a bonobo playing with him. So we'd love your thoughts,

HOBSON: Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.