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Israeli university to help decode whale language in unique global study

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‘The research could even enable humans to understand their language,’ Haifa University said

By ILANIT CHERNICK

Israel’s Haifa University has joined a worldwide study that is aiming to understand how Sperm Whales communicate.

The research could even enable humans to understand their language, Haifa University said in a statement.

Together with the City University of New York (CUNY), Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Imperial College London, UC Berkeley and others, Haifa University researchers will spend some five years on the project, which is set to take place in the Caribbean country of Dominica.

“The multidisciplinary project is set to combine knowledge from the fields of marine biology, marine acoustics, artificial intelligence, linguistics and more,” said Prof. Danny Chernov of the Leon Charney School of Marine Sciences at the University of Haifa. “We’re also going to use innovative underwater robots and of course hundreds of diving hours for the study.”

According to Chernov, Sperm Whales “make clicking sounds while hunting along with other sounds, at different frequencies, specifically when they are in the company of other whales.” 

“It’s most probably a kind of social activity in a tribal structure,” he pointed out. “The question we are asking is: Are these just simple codes of communication or maybe real language?” 

Addressing this, Chernov said that they don’t have a large enough database, “so we just don’t know at this stage.”

What inspired the team to go ahead with this study was the technological advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities.

“In light of this…we came up with the idea that if we can gather enough information – about their voices, their social context, and the connection between certain sounds and certain behavior,” Chernov said.

“From this, we can develop algorithms that tell us whether they actually have a real language,” he said, adding that their big dream “is that if it turns out that they do have a language, we may be able to communicate with whales.

Leading the study is Prof. David Gruber, who is the head of the scientific project from CUNY while Chernov is the operational director of the project and a member of the leading scientific committee. 

Other researchers from the University of Haifa who are taking part in the project include Dr. Roy Diamant, who specializes in underwater acoustics – also from the School of Marine Sciences – and Dr. Bracha Nir, head of the Department of Communication Disorders.

The Haifa University researchers are responsible for the establishment and operation of the research station in Dominica, for the establishment of the research vessel system, the float system, the robot system and, in fact, the entire operational side of the research. 

In joint comment on the study, Chernov, Diamant and Nir said that they were extremely proud to be leading “one of the most fascinating research projects ever undertaken in the marine arena, and whose research findings have a significant impact on these exceptional animals.” 

Concluding, Haifa University president Prof. Ron Rubin stressed that the “participation of three researchers from the university in the prestigious research project alongside the world’s leading researchers from Harvard, MIT and Berkeley, emphasizes the extensive work being done at the university and the School of Marine Sciences in particular.”

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