Blog Post

Thoughts on the "Interspecies Internet" project

 

A few months ago, I watched a TED talk on the emerging “Interspecies Internet”, and I recently stumbled across a brief commentary on the “Interspecies Internet” project published online by Boston’s NPR, which brought it back into my consciousness. For those unfamiliar with the project, as quoted in the cited Boston NPR article, “the goal is to further develop knowledge of animal cognition, provide enrichment for captive animals and facilitate communication between species.” While I find the project fascinating, I am wondering if (and if “yes,” then to what extent) the aims of the project only further reify notions of human exceptionalism and the (alleged) superiority of human cognitive abilities. Peter Gabriel, a musician and co-founder of the project, is cited as saying that the architects of the interspecies internet hope to create “interfaces that allow other cognitive species to show exactly who they are and how smart they are.” Does this not presuppose that animal intelligence will manifest itself in ways parallel to that of humans and that it can be captured through interactions with digital technologies? Though multi-sensorial (through sight, sound, and touch), internet-usage is also fundamentally sensorially limited, in that traditionally it does not engage the senses of taste and smell – senses that may be central for directing many animal behaviors. Is this notion not also fundamentally flawed in its supposition that animals will (and should) seek to “display” their intelligence by engaging with human-made technologies? To assume that animals will desire to engage deeply (with humans or with other species) through internet-mediated interactions and to use this as the basis of measuring intelligence is, in my opinion, unsound. I do not mean to be overly critical of the project, because I do believe it offers exciting opportunities for exploring animals’ cognitive lives; however, I hope that the knowledge gained from the project will not be used to animals’ collective detriment (i.e., I hope it is not used as a tool to merely showcase their “otherness,” but rather to capture their distinct modes of intelligence and to highlight their unique curiosities, inclinations, and capabilities). Do others have thoughts on the project?

 

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3 comments

Wow-- thanks for sharing this project, and I completely side with your nuanced analysis and suspicion of how humans measure, look for, and evidence "the cognitive" in animals, which I think is incredibly narrowly defined and anthropocentric. The first thing that comes to mind is John Lilly's work on dolphins (so many problems) but in so many of the experiments, the dolphins got bored and refused to participate.  

If you've read Jacob von Uexküll's work on animal worlds (or Umwelts), he makes the same mistake by presuming that the human Umwelt enfolds those of all the animals (which the translator Geoffrey Winthrop Young notes in his intro).  This relates to the underlying assumption that we would be able to perceive everything going on for that animal, which is a sort of problem of perception and translation and recognition all at once.  It seems like it also forgets the role of the body in cognition (cite: Katherine Hayles, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson).  That in turn reminds me of one (one...) lucid quote from Henri Lefebvre, "before there was an intelligence of the mind, there was an intelligence of the body" (I think around p. 72 in The Production of Space).  

A marine biologist brought up what is, I think, a more interesting issue that cognition without considering the body.  And that is the study of how what we would call "synaesthesia" but across species (ex: crabs 'taste' with their feet, bats 'see' with sound).  

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Thanks for mentioning these other projects and bodies of research, Melody. I am not familiar with most of those you indicated, but I will definitely add them to my reading list.

Another tangentially related project is Bart Weetjen's (featured in a TED talk here) - he's training South African rats to sniff out land mines and tuberculosis-positive human blood samples. It's an interesting case of how we rely on animals' superior sensory abilities to accomplish goals (of which humans are the primary beneficiaries). I'm not sure what kinds of relationships the workers in this project have with their rat co-workers, but I thought I'd mention it, as it may be of interest to you.

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This is a really interesting response to this project. I am reminded that we already know that many animals communicate with each other well outside of the range of human senses - mice squeak at pitches inaudible to humans, elephants communicate verbally well below it, fish are known to make clicking noises underwater and ants to rub their antennae together. Plus all of the chemical signalling that occurs between indviduals in many species (not just animals) and the differences in time scale of communications.
I also wonder how animals without colour vision might see internet interface devices, or those with eyes in the sides of their heads not the front - what kind of screen would a cow need for optimal net viewing? Cows already interact with computers in automatically run dairies...
Such a project might also open up avenues for humans with specific sensory deprivations to have full access to the power of the internet.
Maybe this is also a way of people trying to come to terms with just how limited our own experience of the world is when compared with the array of other possibilities that exist.

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