iPads, Apes, and the Future of Communication

iPads, Apes, and the Future of Communication

The Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa is home to seven Bonobos with a large vocabulary. They’re communicating via lexigrams on touch-screen displays. Now they want to give them iPad-like devices to enable portable communication for the apes.

By any ape-based standards, these seven Bonobos are a smart bunch. These Bonobos have a vocabulary of about 400 words. (More than the average human middle-school student.) They don’t speak the words; they have associated the meaning of those words with symbols known as lexigrams.  They communicate with humans by touching the appropriate lexigram on wall mounted touch screen displays.

Now comes word from the sanctuary that they’d like to develop an app that could be used on mobile versions of the wall screens, so tablet-toting Bonobos could communicate from wherever they happen to be. No word on the possibility of a Starbucks location opening in the sanctuary.

One feature of the proposed Bonobo chat app that really stands out is the ability for it to act as a sort of human-ape translator. A human could speak into the device in English, and the app would translate the sentences into lexigrams the bonobo could understand, and display them on the screen of the device. The bonobo could then poke out a reply using lexigrams, which would then be translated into a spoken message played back for the human. We’re not talking deep conversation about how “Planet of the Apes” changed my life, but there would be communication. Even on a basic level, this is intriguing.

Projected features of the app include the ability for the apes to use the devices to control their environment. By selecting on-screen lexigrams, they could open a door, operate a vending machine, (banana, my dear?) or watch a movie. (I’ve already used the Planet of the Apes gag, so I’ll skip it here.) One slightly frightening feature of the app would be the ability to control “RoboBonobo”, a water gun equipped wheeled robot located outside the ape’s enclosure.

RoboBonobo would allow the Bonobos to physically interact with visitors by playing chase games or squirting them with water. Sounds like fun, until the Military-Industrial complex gets wind of it. Then we’re equipping RoboBonobo with 50 caliber machine guns and lasers. (It’s unknown what the proper lexigram combination is for “Your move, punk!”) The apes could also use video output from an onboard camera to play with subjects in another room, or even another country.

This brings up the question, would French Bonobos be able to understand the lexigrams from American Bonobos? Would we need a whole extra level of translation software? Is it a good idea to let apes of the world communicate with each other? (I keep coming back to Planet of the Apes don’t I? That movie scared the crap out of me when I was a kid in the 70s…)

The Big Picture

This is certainly not the only project of its kind. The Orangutan Outreach program is working on getting iPads into the hands of apes in zoos, to provide them with mental stimulation. The Wild Dolphin Project is working on a device that would allow communications between humans and dolphins.

While all of this is interesting, and a bit scary (yeah, I need therapy,) can any of this research be applied to humans? Perhaps Autism research? Should we should be putting money into projects like this, or instead help finance Kickstarter projects for apps to help autistic children?

As a former Apple Store employee, I have seen children with Autism react to the iPad first hand. It’s magical. They tap the icons, they respond, they smile, it’s fascinating to watch.

Now it’s reaction time for you, the reader. Some of you will read about the Bonobo project, and think “Cool! Let’s do that!” Others will read the same words, and demand the apes be sent back to their natural habitat. Hopefully others will read this article and decide to get involved with Autism charities.

How about it readers? What is your reaction?

  1. Schweller says:

    Interesting you should mention the use of lexigram keyboards as an assistive technology for kids on the autism spectrum.  Since the earliest development of these keyboards that has been one of our goals and we have in fact done some field testing along these lines. – Ken Schweller Chair, Great Ape Trust 

    1. Wow – that is great to hear! We’d love for you to share any information or thoughts you have about this. Could you send us an email?

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