Rock Star and Web Founder Teaming Up on Technology

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A rock star, a vegan financier and a pioneer of the internet are backing a project to find ways for humans to communicate with animals using machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The Interspecies I/O forum on Friday announced the Coller Prize for Interspecies Conversation, a $1 million research award, according to a statement. The effort kicks off this weekend with a video conference on subjects running from the language of bonobo apes to the music of elephants.

Interspecies I/O’s leading figures include musician Peter Gabriel, Vint Cerf -- who helped to design the TCP/IP architecture that underpins the internet -- and private equity veteran Jeremy Coller, a backer of “shoot-for-the-moon” philanthropic projects and part of a network of investors, who has personally said he would like to end factory farming.

Rock Star and Web Founder Teaming Up on Technology

“Now that machine learning has become a powerful tool, one can start imagining trying to extract signals from the interactions that we observe intra-species, in the same way that we train the machine learning systems to translate between languages,” said Cerf on a video call. “The edgy part of this, the really edgy part, is what if an alien showed up? How would we interact?”

No one is yet close to creating an “artificial Dr. Dolittle,” said Cerf. However, he said technology that enhances people’s communication with their pets would be a lucrative market: “People spend an enormous amount of money on their pets. Pets are big business.”

Rock Star and Web Founder Teaming Up on Technology

The group’s members include cognitive psychologist and marine mammal scientist Diana Reiss and Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. They said recent advances in cloud computing, artificial intelligence and big data make their audacious goal more realistic.

Gabriel, Cerf, Reiss and Gershenfeld have been collaborating on ways to decipher the language of animals for several years, and Coller recently brought more financial heft to those efforts.

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