Washington: In a first, scientists have developed an eight-foot underwater computer touchscreen for dolphins to study the intelligence and communication skills of the highly social marine mammals.
The system features specialised dolphin-friendly “apps” and a symbolic keyboard to provide the dolphins – which are intelligent and highly social – with opportunities to interact with the system.
To make the system safe for the dolphins, the touchscreen has been installed outside an underwater viewing window, so that no parts of the device are in the pool: the animals’ touch is detected purely optically.
Researchers from the Hunter College and Rockefeller University in the US has embarked on studies aimed at understanding dolphin vocal learning and communication, their capacity for symbolic communication, and what patterns of behaviour may emerge when the animals have the ability to request items, videos, interactions and images.
“We hope this technologically-sophisticated touchscreen will be enriching for the dolphins and also enrich our science by opening a window into the dolphin mind,” said Diana Reiss, a research scientist at Hunter College.
“Giving dolphins increased choice and control allows them to show us reflections of their way of thinking and may help us decode their vocal communication,” said Reiss.
“It was surprisingly difficult to find an elegant solution that was absolutely safe for the dolphins, but it has been incredibly rewarding to work with these amazing creatures and see their reactions to our system,” said Marcelo Magnasco, from the Rockefeller University.
“It has always been hard to keep up with dolphins, they are so smart; a fully interactive and programmable system will help us follow them in any direction they take us,” said Magnasco.
“The interactive system was designed to engage the dolphins without requiring explicit training. It is an open system in which the dolphins’ use of the touchscreen will shape how the system evolves,” said Ana Hocevar, a postdoctoral research scientist in Magnasco’s lab.
In addition to the touchscreen, the dolphin’s habitat at the US National Aquarium in Baltimore has been outfitted with equipment to record their behaviour and vocalisations as they encounter and begin to use the technology.
Already, the scientists have begun to introduce the dolphins to some of the system’s interactive apps, so the animals can explore on their own how touching the screen results in specific contingencies.
“Without any explicit training or encouragement from us, one of the younger dolphins spontaneously showed immediate interest and expertise in playing a dolphin version of Whack- a-Mole, in which he tracks and touches moving fish on the touchscreen,” Reiss said.