“Scientists are using machine learning to eavesdrop on naked mole rats, fruit bats, crows and whales — and to communicate back.” E. Anthes, The New York Times, Aug. 30, 2022
Excerpt: The Animal Translators, Emily Anthes, The New York Times, Aug. 30, 2022
“The naked mole rat may not be much to look at, but it has much to say.The wrinkled, whiskered rodents, which live, like many ants do, in large, underground colonies, have an elaborate vocal repertoire. They whistle, trill and twitter; grunt, hiccup and hiss.
And when two of the voluble rats meet in a dark tunnel, they exchange a standard salutation. ‘They’ll make a soft chirp, and then a repeating soft chirp,’ said Alison Barker, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, in Germany…Not only did each mole rat have its own vocal signature, but each colony had its own distinct dialect, which was passed down, culturally, over generations. During times of social instability — as in the weeks after a colony’s queen was violently deposed — these cohesive dialects fell apart. When a new queen began her reign, a new dialect appeared to take hold…The field is young and many projects are still in their infancy; humanity is not on the verge of having a Rosetta Stone for whale songs or the ability to chew the fat with cats. But the work is already revealing that animal communication is far more complex than it sounds to the human ear, and the chatter is providing a richer view of the world beyond our own species…Studies of animal communication are not new, but machine-learning algorithms can spot subtle patterns that might elude human listeners… These experiments may also raise ethical issues, experts acknowledge. “If you find patterns in animals that allow you to understand their communication, that opens the door to manipulating their communications,” Mr. Mustill said.
But the technology could also be deployed for the benefit of animals, helping experts monitor the welfare of both wild and domestic fauna. Scientists also said that they hoped that by providing new insight into animal lives, this research might prompt a broader societal shift.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 60 minutes.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos
Directions: Examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. Examine any photos, then create a list of words and ideas that you and your group members think might be related to this article.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Try to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. You use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- Scientists are using machine learning to eavesdrop on mole rats and fruit bats.
- Mole rats are wrinkled whiskered rodents, which live, in large, underground colonies.
- They have an elaborate vocal repertoire.
- The mole rat colonies have times of social instability as when the queen was violently deposed.
- Machine-learning systems have excelled at analyzing human language.
- In recent years, scientists have begun deploying this technology to decode animal communication.
- Scientists are not on the verge of having a Rosetta Stone for whale songs.
- Scientists definitely are not prepared to chew the fat with cats!
- Machine-learning algorithms can spot subtle patterns that might elude human listeners.
- To learn more about the vocalizations of Egyptian fruit bats, researchers used video cameras and microphones to record groups of the animals.
Grammar Focus: Word -Recognition
Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.
Decoding the meaning/mean of animal call/calls also requires/require large amounts of/for data about the context surrounds/surrounding each squeak and squawk.
To learn more/most about the vocalizations of Egyptian fruit bats, researchers used/use video cameras and microphones to/too record groups of a/the animals for 75 days.
Then/Than they reviewed the recordings, painstakingly noting/note several important details, such as witch/which bat was vocalizing and on/in what context, of/for each of nearly 15,000 calls.
Reading Comprehension: Identify The Speakers
Directions: Read the following quotes from the speakers in the article. Then identify the speakers.
- “They have a little conversation.”
- “Let’s try to find a Google Translate for animals.”
- “This is like we’ve invented a telescope — a new tool that allows us to perceive what was already there but we couldn’t see before.”
- “One of the things that’s really great about animal sound is that there are still so many mysteries and that those mysteries are things which we can apply computation to.”
- “You can just get a direct, subjective, from the animal’s mouth how-are-they-feeling.”
- “The bats are pugilistic, frequently quarreling in their crowded colonies, and the vast majority of their vocalizations are aggressive. Basically, they’re pushing each other. Imagine a big stadium and everybody wants to find a seat.”
III. Post Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: In groups answer the following questions.
- Would you like to know what animals are talking about?
- Why or why not?
- Think of ways this might be helpful to animals in general.
- How might this be helpful to humans?
- List three new ideas that you’ve learned about the topic from the reading, two things that you did not understand in the reading, and one thing you would like to know that the article did not mention. Share your responses with your class.