How can we communicate with animals? Music seems to work. Consider the uncanny video below, in which Peter Gabriel jams with a female bonobo monkey. The monkey picks out a haunting melody on a keyboard and appears to play along with her human counterpart.
Gabriel is part of a team of people (which also includes Internet granddaddy Vint Cerf, computer scientist Neil Gershenfeld, and cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss) proposing to develop an "interspecies internet" allowing animals to communicate with one another. And with us. If we develop further understanding of animal cognition, they argue, then we can build interfaces which allow them to take advantage of human tools—like the internet.
After all, it's simple vanity to assume consciousness is unique to humans. Increasingly, we find that animals show signs of self-awareness. Reiss, who teaches dolphins to communicate using underwater keyboards, pointed out in the group's recent TED talk that “we used to think [self-awareness] was a uniquely human quality, but dolphins aren’t the only non-human animals to show self-recognition in a mirror. Great apes, our closest relatives, also show this ability,” as do elephants.
If they're capable of benefiting from it, how could we deny conscious beings the access to evolutionary tools like the Internet? If nothing else, creating such a network would be good practice in tamping down our inherent human chauvinism, and might come in handy if we ever need to communicate with other species in the universe. As Gabriel put it in yesterday's Here & Now episode on the subject, "If aliens do exist…we expect them to treat us as smart creatures that are worth listening to, and I would ask, 'like we have with the other species on this planet?'"
All of this is pretty bleeding-edge (and bleeding-heart), but it owes a huge debt to the often-ignored work of an animal communication pioneer: John C. Lilly.