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App would allow humans to communicate with bonobos

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March 29, 2012

Bonobo Chat is a proposed app, that would allow humans to communicate with bonobos such as...

Bonobo Chat is a proposed app, that would allow humans to communicate with bonobos such as Kanzi

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The seven bonobos living at the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, are a pretty smart bunch of apes. Among other things, they have a vocabulary of about 400 words – they don’t speak those words, but instead associate the meanings of them with symbols known as lexigrams. Using large wall-mounted touchscreen displays, they are able to communicate with humans by touching the appropriate lexigrams on those displays. Now, the sanctuary wants to develop an app that could be used on mobile versions of the wall screens, so tablet-wielding bonobos could communicate from wherever they happen to be.

One of the Bonobo Chat app’s more interesting features would be its ability to act as a sort of human-ape translator. People could simply speak into their device in English, at which point the app would select lexigrams corresponding to their words, and display those on the screen of the selected bonobo’s device. Conversely, once an ape had poked out a series of lexigrams on their screen, a corresponding spoken message would be played back by the human’s device. We’re not talking about complex sentences, obviously, but two-way conversations nonetheless.

A prototype of the tablet which would run the Bonobo Chat app

A prototype of the tablet which would run the Bonobo Chat app

The apes could also use the devices to control their environment – by selecting the appropriate lexigram, for instance, they could do things such as open a door, operate a vending machine, or watch a movie.

They could also use it to control RoboBonobo, a water gun-equipped wheeled robot located outside of their enclosure. Because visitors generally aren’t able to go in with the apes, RoboBonobo would still allow the bonobos to physically interact with those people, such as by playing chase games or squirting them with water. Using the video output from an onboard camera, the apes could even play with people in another room, or – because the mobile devices communicate via the internet – in another country.

Two prototypes of the RoboBonobo robot

Two prototypes of the RoboBonobo robot

It may all sound a little outrageous to some people, but it’s certainly not the only project of its kind. The Orangutan Outreach program, for example, is working on getting iPads into the hands of apes in zoos, to provide them with mental stimulation. The Wild Dolphin Project, meanwhile, is working on a device that would allow communications between humans and dolphins.

The Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary is currently raising funds for the development of Bonobo Chat, on Kickstarter. If you’re feeling particularly generous, a pledge of US$500 or more will get you a Skype “chat” with one of the sanctuary’s two start pupils, Kanzi or Panbanisha.

Source: Kickstarter via IEEE Spectrum

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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10 Comments

What idiots want to teach animals to communicate with us. These should be put back in the wild and left there. Effing morons must leave nature alone. Almost as bad as cloning, selective breeding and trying to find a cure for aids, leave nature be to take care of itself, after all nature is in perfect balance until humans come along and try to make changes.

jonathan
29th March, 2012 @ 05:27 pm PDT

It is really interesting to learn what these beings have to say. It would be even more interesting if we were able to somehow give them the ability to increase the vocabulary together so that there would be the possibility to evolve our topics of discussion.

Carlos Grados
29th March, 2012 @ 06:24 pm PDT

What a great idea, now we can communicate with politicians !!!

Robert Harold Knapman
30th March, 2012 @ 08:53 am PDT

Oh, thank you, God. At long last we're starting to see signs of intelligent life on the internet. Ralph L. Seifer, Long Beach, California.

rseifer
30th March, 2012 @ 09:10 am PDT

Adam and Eve are genetically engineered chimps in the future. The meek will take over in less than 1100 years. The engineered chimps will be used as slaves . Big mistake.

Stewart Mitchell
30th March, 2012 @ 11:06 am PDT

"The apes could also use the devices to control their environment – by selecting the appropriate lexigram, for instance, they could do things such as open a door, operate a vending machine, or watch a movie"

It all sounds very interesting until some moron decides to let them watch the "Planet of the Apes" movies...That will be the beginning of the end.

Wes Lewis
30th March, 2012 @ 11:17 am PDT

It's about time, for some stupid reason Gizmag forgot almost I lived in their website

( view it often for new stuff and commented).. Anywho, this is rise of the planet of the apes right here, one day they're going to ask for their freedom.

Gargamoth
30th March, 2012 @ 11:50 am PDT

They already have Gargamoth. Chimps involved in the sign language experiments in the 60's and 70's who ended up in cages in research labs often signed 'key', 'out' and 'play'.

Fiona Watson
30th March, 2012 @ 03:48 pm PDT

Sad no one has thought to mention how we may be able to ask THEM real questions about life. We've proven with animals of this caliper it's not just "eat, poop, procreate & sleep, right?

Christopher R. Henry
31st March, 2012 @ 02:30 am PDT

The wisdom that we will learn from them will be simply "make love not war".

JC
1st April, 2012 @ 12:33 am PDT
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