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The Animal Translators


Machines learning systems have excelled at analyzing human language. In recent years, scientists have begun deploying the technology to decode animal communication.

Credit: Felix Schmitt/The New York Times

The naked mole rat may not be much to look at, but it has much to say. The wrinkled, whiskered rodents, which live, like many ants do, in large, underground colonies, have an elaborate vocal repertoire. They whistle, trill and twitter; grunt, hiccup and hiss.

And when two of the voluble rats meet in a dark tunnel, they exchange a standard salutation. "They'll make a soft chirp, and then a repeating soft chirp," said Alison Barker, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, in Germany. "They have a little conversation."

Hidden in this everyday exchange is a wealth of social information, Dr. Barker and her colleagues discovered when they used machine-learning algorithms to analyze 36,000 soft chirps recorded in seven mole rat colonies.

From The New York Times
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