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Hey Bill Nye! Why Don't Computers Allow Us to Talk Directly to Animals?

Could we use computers to translate animal communication into human language? If so, what would we learn? And might it unlock a new understanding of existence and our place in the cosmos?

Hassa: Hey Bill. I’m a big fan of your work. This is Hassa from Tunisia. I’m at the University of Freiburg in Germany. My question for you today is how can it be that human beings still can’t communicate with animals? I mean we have powerful computers by now. Isn’t it just easier to just record a lot of data, let the computers look for a pattern and play them back and it allows the responses. Imagine all the implications. Animals can become better tools for us or even closer friends. And can even ask them what their perspective of life is. I hope you answer my question. Have a nice day.

Bill Nye: Hello, hello. Hassick? Did I pronounce it correctly? I’m doing my best. I only heard it once and the sound is not too good. Hassick, greetings. Thank you for your question. Can we communicate with animals better than we do now. Well I’ve spent a lot of time with dogs and I really have a sense of what they’re thinking. I certainly have a sense of when they’re happy and when they’re sad. I’ve spent a little bit of time with gorillas. Now I’m talking about a tiny amount of time. But you can certainly tell when a gorilla is happy, when a gorilla is angry and you can also tell when gorillas are communicating with each other. Now this is one of the things I wonder about all the time. Is there a gradient, is there an increasing stair step of intelligence, of language skill between let’s say a gibbon, a bonobo, a gorilla, a chimpanzee, a human. Is there a gradient of intelligence from cow to horse to zebra to giraffe. I don’t know but these animals certainly the mammals anyway certainly have emotions that we can detect and interact with. But I’m very skeptical so far that animals really ponder the universe and our place within it. And I’m very skeptical that bonobos or chimpanzees have developed something like the periodic table of the elements.

However with that said if you ever saw the movie UP which is an animated move. I think the word poignant in English would be very descriptive. It’s bittersweet but there’s a fabulous scientific premise, a science fiction premise where the inventor has a collar that enables dogs to speak English. It’s fabulous. And I don’t know maybe they translated it into German and you watched it in German. But wouldn’t that be fun if you could talk to dogs in English or human language sentences. Wouldn’t that just be the most fun ever. But I’m skeptical – just for example when a human dies we go to all kinds of trouble. We’ve got funeral homes and cemeteries. But when a primate dies there is apparently a period of mourning in the troop or the barrel of monkeys, of chimpanzees but then they get over it much more quickly than humans do. And I wonder is that for evolution like they have to get over it in order to go forage for food and get on with their lives.

Or is their memory of it just kind of not as intense as humans because they don’t have a language that reinforces this person’s memory and the interactions you have with your fellow primate. I wonder this. So to answer your question I am absolutely not sure. But intuitively it seems like this gradient of intelligence would limit the amount that we could talk with animals. Now by the way I don’t know if you’ve ever been in to Aquaman. He can talk to fish. He talks to fish. Tarzan, king of the jungle, talks to all his animal guys, people, animal friends. They’re not people. And so that is certainly something humans have thought about for centuries or those myths wouldn’t exist.

Hassick, one more thing about using computers to communicate with
animals. Keep in mind that the computers have to be programmed. Somebody would have to at least early here in the twenty-first century computers are not self-organizing enough to decide to make a program to communicate with animals. But in the ornithology community, people who study birds, they work really hard to understand bird calls. They record them, reproduce them, try to communicate with birds. Certainly people try to imitate whale sounds and marine mammal sounds.

But I don’t think it’s to the point where anybody has taken a meeting with them and talking about the fundamental theorem of calculus or the rocket equation or how to raise crops under water or whatever it is. So I’m interested in this gradient of intelligence and it’ll be up to you to write the computer program that enables this idea of yours. The answer is definitely maybe.

Computers are great a decoding data and recognizing patterns, so might animal communication contain patterns which could be decoded, and then translated into human language? Animals certainly have an interior life of some kind, confirms Bill Nye, who has observed dogs and primates on various occasions. But the extent to which animal communication is as complex — as intentional — as human language is in doubt.


There appears to be a spectrum of intelligence among animals, including humans, but there is precious little evidence that animals understand complex concepts like existence, the self, time, or mathematics. So were to translate animal communication, it might turn out something like the dog in Pixar's film Up, who hilariously brings people's attention to any nearby squirrel. A funny premise for comedy, but a rather vexing one for stimulating conversation.

Of the emotional life of animals, however, there can be do doubt. When a primate dies, for example, the community it belonged to mourns visibly. In this reply to a Big Think fan, Bill Nye wonders whether a lack of linguistic concepts — memory, longing, death, afterlife, etc. — naturally shortens the mourning period animals perform. Ultimately when it comes to communicating with animals, we may not need to translate their communicative performances into language. They already contain meaning that we understand.

Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

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Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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No, the Yellowstone supervolcano is not ‘overdue’

Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.

Image: USGS - public domain
Strange Maps
  • The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
  • Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
  • The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
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Spiders lace webs in toxins to paralyze prey

Just what every arachnophobe needed to hear.

Luciano Marra from São Paulo, Brasil - Aranha de Teia (Nephila clavipes), CC BY-SA 2.0
Surprising Science
  • A new study suggests some spiders might lace their webs with neruotoxins similar to the ones in their venom.
  • The toxins were shown to be effective at paralyzing insects injected with them.
  • Previous studies showed that other spiders lace their webs with chemicals that repel large insects.
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