How to Talk to a Dolphin with an Underwater Translation Machine

A group of scientists from several institutions are collaborating to "co-create" a language with dolphins that humans can interpret with the help of an underwater "translation" machine.

Captive dolphins can be trained to understand hundreds of human words, and can even understand grammar. (The difference, for instance, between "bring that fish to me" and "bring me to that fish.") But we can't understand or respond to the underwater whinnies they use to communicate with each other without electronic intervention. The New Scientist explains:

To record, interpret and respond to dolphin sounds, Starner and his students are building a prototype device featuring a smartphone-sized computer and two hydrophones capable of detecting the full range of dolphin sounds.

A diver will carry the computer in a waterproof case worn across the chest, and LEDs embedded around the diver's mask will light up to show where a sound picked up by the hydrophones originates from. The diver will also have a Twiddler—a handheld device that acts as a combination of mouse and keyboard—for selecting what kind of sound to make in response.

But will we be able to the dolphins' words? Do they even have words? Will our "co-created" language work?

And what if it turns out they're terrible conversationalists, and humankind is forced to spend the rest of its existence like a person cornered at a party, stuck talking to the resident never-shuts-up? God, that would suck. [NewScientist, image of Jessica Alba in 1995 TV series "Flipper" via MGM]