New App Allows Humans to Communicate with Bonobos



Have you always wanted to communicate with a bonobo? Now there's an app for that.

Researchers at the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, are developing an app that acts as a human-ape translator, allowing both species to communicate with one another using a tablet.

All seven of the bonobos at the Sanctuary are already trained to use a vocabulary of over 400 words, but since they can't vocalize those words, researchers have taught them to associate words with lexicons on a touchscreen, which the apes touch accordingly when they want to speak. Needless to say, this format lends itself extremely well to the interface on a tablet.

One of the coolest features of the app will be that human users won't be required to understand the apes' lexicons. Rather, humans merely need to talk into their device and the app will translate that speech into the corresponding lexicons on the bonobo's device. After the bonobo responds in turn by using its touchscreen, the app performs a reverse translation and delivers a spoken message to the human's device.

Since the communication occurs over a tablet, this will also allow the bonobos to communicate over the internet with people from anywhere around the world.

The development of the app is just one part of a larger plan to offer bonobos more control over their environment using their lexicon language. Eventually, researchers hope for each ape to have its own tablet, which will also give them control over things like opening doors, operating vending machines or changing the channel on their television.

Bonobochat-1The plan also entails giving the apes fuller control over RoboBonobo, a remotely controlled robot which shares a likeness to a bonobo. The robot gives the bonobos a way to interact with human visitors and other objects outside of their enclosure, since visitors aren't typically allowed in with the apes. RoboBonobo even comes equipped with a playful water cannon -- because obviously apes need control over a weaponized telepresence to satisfy their mischievous side.

While some may be concerned that the idea of giving bonobos access to the internet and control over robots sounds disturbingly like a plotline from Planet of the Apes, it's all in the name of offering these animals a more enriching environment. Researchers hope that a more enriching environment will also help the apes to advance in their language use.

If you'd like to help out, the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary is currently raising funds for the development of the app on Kickstarter. Pledges of 500 dollars or more will get you an exclusive Skype chat with one of the Sanctuary's charming apes. A squirt from RoboBonobo is not necessarily included.

[Via Gizmag]

Top image via Kev Chapman/Flickr, RoboBonobo photo via

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