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Dolphin-Friendly Apps Test Intelligence

BioPhotonics
Aug 2017
AUTUM C. PYLANT, NEWS EDITOR, autum.pylant@photonics.com

Touchscreen computers, tablets and phones are all the rage right now with kids and adults alike. And, we’re learning that dolphins might not be any different.

That’s right. Dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., now have an eight-foot underwater computer touchscreen attached to the outside of their tank that tests their intelligence via dolphin-friendly apps and a keyboard with symbols. And, some of the test participants seem to enjoy using it.

Researchers from Hunter College and Rockefeller University, both in New York City, are using optical technology to investigate dolphin intelligence and communication by providing them choice and control over a number of activities.

The eight-foot underwater touchscreen enables dolphins to optically interact with the system.

The eight-foot underwater touchscreen enables dolphins to optically interact with the system. Courtesy of the Marine Mammal Communication and Cognition Collaboration.

To make the system safe, the touchscreen has been installed outside an underwater viewing window, so that no parts of the device are actually in the pool. Ana Hocevar, a postdoctoral research scientist from Rockefeller University, told Photonics Media that the dolphins’ touch is detected optically.

“We use polarized infrared light to illuminate a layer of water near the underwater window, such that as a dolphin touches the window, with its rostrum or beak, it is illuminated. Then a camera equipped with an infrared filter and a polarizer detects that light,” said Hocevar. “We developed software that determines where the scene is touched by the dolphin. The location of the touch is then fed into the computer as a mouse click.”

The research is still in the early stages. But, the team has already embarked on studies aimed at understanding dolphin vocal learning and communication, their capacity for symbolic communication and what patterns of behavior may emerge when the animals have the ability to request items, videos, interactions and images.

“When a dolphin touches a specific key, novel acoustic whistles — unlike those in the dolphins’ own repertoire — will be produced prior to the dolphin obtaining the contingent object or activity,” said Diana Reiss, a dolphin cognition and communication research scientist and professor in the department of psychology at Hunter College.

A dolphin at the National Aquarium.

A dolphin at the National Aquarium. Courtesy of m2c2.

The scientists have introduced the dolphins to some of the system’s interactive apps, giving the animals an opportunity to explore on their own what happens when they touch the screen.

“Without any explicit training or encouragement from us,” said Reiss, “one of the younger dolphins, Foster, 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.”

The researchers are also using a video and audio tracking system that allows them to document the dolphins’ behavior during research sessions beyond how they use the touchscreen.

The Hunter/Rockefeller research team plans to share their technology with other aquariums to investigate if different social groups might interact with each other visually and acoustically across the interface. Besides yielding valuable information, the researchers say their touchscreen system may serve as well as an enriching tool for their dolphin friends.

biophotonicsResearch & Technologydolphinstouchscreensopticscamerasinfrared lightwaterDisplaysSensors & DetectorsNational AquariumAutum PylantPost Scripts

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