Tech-Savvy Dolphins Use Giant Underwater Touchscreen to Play Whack-a-Mole

Dolphin Touchscreen
A dolphin uses an 8-foot touchscreen computer. The M2C2 Research Collaborative

Scientists in the U.S. have created a massive touchscreen computer for dolphins in a bid to test their intelligence and communication skills—and initial observations suggest that they know how to use it.

Dolphins are highly intelligent and communicate with one another through whistles, high-pitched clicking sounds and body language that scientists are keen to understand. In the U.S., a team of researchers is currently working on a device that can translate dolphin whistles into a language that can be understood by humans and could allow us to communicate with them.

Last year, Russian scientist Vyacheslav A. Ryabov claimed to have recorded the first dolphin conversation. In his study, he said he had recorded dolphins and found two individuals would take it in turns to produce a pack of "pulses" and did not interrupt each other. He took this to mean the dolphins were talking to each other in a manner that "resembles a conversation between two people."

Ryabov's study was widely criticized, but the widespread attention it gained highlights the potential level of dolphin intelligence—and how little we really understand it.

At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a team of scientists from Hunter College and Rockefeller University have now taken steps to better understand the minds of dolphins by giving them a huge touchscreen computer to play with.

The eight-foot screen includes dolphin friendly apps and a keyboard so that the animals in the aquarium could interact with it. Researchers have used the device to develop a range of studies to better understand dolphin vocal learning, their capacity for symbolic communication and how their behavior changes when they are able to make requests, for example for specific videos, images and interactive games.

Because the touchscreen has only been installed fairly recently, they are yet to make any detailed findings but initial observations seem promising. Diana Reiss, a dolphin cognition and communication research scientist at Hunter College, said the touchscreen system was an "elegant solution" to the task of understanding dolphin communication.

The computer allows the team to follow the dolphins in whatever they wish to do. "The interactive system was designed to engage the dolphins without requiring explicit training," said Ana Hocevar, who built the hardware for the device and programmed its functionality. "It is an open system in which the dolphins' use of the touchscreen will shape how the system evolves."

One of the dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The M2C2 Research Collaborative

One of the younger dolphins began using the computer straight away: "Without any explicit training or encouragement from us...[he] 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," said Reiss.

The scientists will monitor the dolphins to see if they integrate new elements from the touchpad—such as acoustic signals—into their normal day-to-day lives.

"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," Reiss continued.

"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."