Can We Communicate With Whales? New AI Research Is Trying to Figure It Out

A multidisciplinary team of scientists is trying to use artificial intelligence to decode the language of whales.

Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) aims to use advanced machine learning and non-invasive robotics to listen to, translate communications, and possibly even talk to these marine mammals.

Background: Interview with… a whale!

David Gruber, a marine biologist at City University of New York and leader of Project CETI, first thought about this idea when Shafi Goldwasser, a colleague computer scientist and cryptography expert, came by his office and commented on how the clicking sounds sperm whales produce when they talk to each other reminded her of faulty circuitries sounds or Morse code.

“Maybe we should do a project where we are translating the whale sounds into something that we as humans can understand,” Gruber told Goldwasser. “I really said it as an afterthought. I never thought he was going to take me seriously.”

Recent breakthroughs in AI and machine translation have allowed researchers to interpret and translate between two unknown human languages without needing a parallel structure. 

Michael Bronstein, a computer scientist following recent advancements in a branch of AI that deals with automated analysis of written and spoken speech, was convinced that the utterances sperm whales use to communicate had the perfect structure for this kind of analysis. The non-continuous clicks produced by sperm whales could be easily translated to ones and zeroes.

“It is realistic to assume that whale communication is primarily acoustic,” Bronstein says. Sperm whales can communicate over great distances without body language and facial expressions, which are fundamental aspects of communication between animals. Project CETI aims to create the first-ever map of another animal’s language.



Analysis: Can We Communicate with Whales?

Project CETI was created with the intent of deciphering the communication of the sperm whale using groundbreaking AI techniques, advanced machine learning, and robotics. Moreover, the team hopes that this project will help them connect with and understand other animals to display the critical role biodiversity plays in our planet’s ecosystem.

This project is divided into four phases. First, the team will develop non-invasive and non-destructive robotics techs. Then they’ll use this tech to listen to a population of sperm whales off the coast of Dominica, in the Caribbean, where Dr. Shane Gero, whale biology expert in this project, has been collecting data on the sounds and other characteristics of the animals.

After data collection, scientists will then try to decode it using AI technologies and linguistic methodologies. Finally, Project CETI will launch a public portal to attract a global community into this first attempt of dialogue with a non-human species.

Outlook: Can animals have languages?

Whether animals have languages has been a controversial conversation among experts for a long time. Some believe that language is exclusive to humans, while others defend that we simply haven’t looked closely enough into the matter.

A language is defined by semantics, with vocalizations with fixed meanings, grammar, and a third criterion that says that the vocalizations can’t be completely innate, meaning that the animal must be able to learn different expressions. For different animals, these conditions have been proved.

Siberian jays, a type of bird, are known to have vocabulary calls with fixed meanings. A study published in Nature Communications proved that some birds could combine different calls to produce different warnings, meaning that they can create different types of “sentences” that can be considered grammar. Finally, several animal species are vocal learners. Dolphins, for example, learn individual whistles that they use as a personal identifier, like a name for themselves.

Some animals may have their languages, and Project CETI aims to uncover what sperm whales say to each other. We’ll soon find out whether they can share their experiences or some tips on the best places to fish. We might even be able to talk back to them!

Raquel is a forensic geneticist turned freelance writer. She has a knack for technology and a passion for science. You can follow her at and on Twitter @theRaquelSantos