Underwater touchscreen deployed in aquarium to assess dolphin intelligence

Dolphins are going to have their intelligence assessed by scientists using an underwater computer touchscreen through which they are able to interact and make choices.

Using optical technology specifically developed for this project, dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, are at the centre of research from an interdisciplinary team from Hunter College and Rockefeller University.

The system, the first of its kind, will be used to investigate dolphin intelligence and communication by providing them choice and control over a number of activities.

Researchers believe this technology will help extend the high-throughput revolution in biology that has brought us whole-genome sequencing and the BRAIN project, into the field of animal cognition.

The 2.4-metre underwater touchscreen features specialised dolphin-friendly apps and a symbolic keyboard to provide the dolphins – which are intelligent and highly social – with opportunities to interact with the system.

To make the system safe for the dolphins, the touchscreen has been installed outside an underwater viewing window, so that no parts of the device are in the pool: the animals’ touch is detected purely optically.

While the research is still in its early stages, the team has embarked on studies aimed at understanding dolphin vocal learning and communication, their capacity for symbolic communication, and what patterns of behaviour may emerge when the animals have the ability to request items, videos, interactions and images.

“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,” said Hunter College research scientist Diana Reiss. “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.”

Biophysicist Marcelo Magnasco, integrative neuroscience professor at Rockefeller University said: “It was surprisingly difficult to find an elegant solution that was absolutely safe for the dolphins, but it has been incredibly rewarding to work with these amazing creatures and see their reactions to our system.”

“It has always been hard to keep up with dolphins, they are so smart; a fully interactive and programmable system will help us follow them in any direction they take us.”

In addition to the touchscreen itself, the dolphin’s habitat at the National Aquarium has been fitted with equipment to record their behaviour and vocalisations as they encounter and begin to use the technology.

The team wants to monitor whether the dolphins integrate novel elements from touchpad interactions, such as acoustic signals, into their daily repertoire.

Already, the scientists have begun to introduce the dolphins to some of the system’s interactive apps, so the animals can explore on their own how touching the screen results in specific contingencies. “Without any explicit training or encouragement from us, one of the younger dolphins, Foster, spontaneously showed immediate interest and expertise in playing a dolphin version of Whack-a-Mole,” Reiss says, “in which he tracks and touches moving fish on the touchscreen.”

The research team hopes that the information gleaned from this research will also result in increased empathy toward dolphins and inspire global policies for their protection.

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