I might have mentioned that I got to do some world traveling for my work recently. Seeing rural Tanzania was an experience that I still don’t really have good words to describe. But this is not a post about that. This is a post about a sticky idea I got stuck on in some science fiction I was reading during my multi-day to and fro travel.
On my around-the-world-in-4.5-days journey, I read the Jewish feminist sci-fi novel He, She, and It by Marge Piercy. It’s got a classic hard AI theme, about a robot that is so, so human… I’d recommend it. But dilemmas of whether a robot can make a minyon in the reform tradition of 2059 has not stuck in my mind the way this one line about whales has:
The great whales—we had just about killed off the last of them before we began to translate their epic and lyric poetry.
Okay, I’m a little embarrassed by it when I re-read it, but seriously, could we do it? That is, does a serious attempt to translate whale songs into english have a chance in this modern age? I once had a dusty book about an effort by Carl Sagan and his buddies to learn to communicate with dolphins in the 1960s, but technology has seriously advanced since then.
The last talk I saw on statistical machine translation was an effort to do arabic-to-english translation without telling the computer anything about the structure of sentences in either language.
Whale-to-english translation is at least one step harder, since there is a whale-speech-to-whale-text component that needs to precede the machine translation part (and, I suppose, there is the possibility that whale songs cannot be translated into english).
A few questions: Has it already been done/proven impossible? Do you think we could do it? Do you have a vast collection of whale songs available to aid in the quest?
Regarding question 3, after a little searching, I’ve found the lab at Cornell that probably has the necessary data set. They seem more interested in counting and tracking whales than translating them, but I’ve seen many a health researcher be protective of this sort of precious data. I wonder if the Bioacoustics Research Program could share a few thousand hours of recordings.