SETI tech: uplifting chimps

Larry Klaes (
Mon, 26 Jul 1999 18:50:05 -0400

>From: Eugene Leitl <>
>Date: Mon, 26 Jul 1999 00:45:23 -0700 (PDT)
>To: <>
>Subject: tech: uplifting chimps
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> I think big: the apes'
> symbols are being taught
> to Nyota, a baby chimp,
> by his mother
> Photograph: Stuart
> Conway
> Scientists teach chimpanzee to
> speak English
> by Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
>RESEARCHERS have for the first time taught apes how to speak. Two
>animals, a pygmy chimp and an orang-utan, have been able to hold
>conversations with humans.
>The chimp, called Panbanisha, has a vocabulary of 3,000 words and
>talks through a computer that produces a synthetic voice as she
>presses symbols on a keyboard.
>She now speaks constantly, constructing sentences ranging from,
>"Please can I have an iced coffee" to discussing videos she has
>watched with the scientists who look after her at Georgia State
>University's language research centre in Atlanta.
>The 20-year-old orang-utan, called Chantek, is a few miles away at
>Atlanta zoo where it, too, is learning to use a voice synthesiser - a
>skill it is expected to master quickly, since it already has a
>2,000-word vocabulary in sign language.
>Among its first spoken words, delivered Stephen Hawking-style, was the
>request to keepers: "Please buy me a hamburger." Recently it saved
>money paid to it in return for carrying out tasks and building
>artefacts, then told scientists in sign language: "I want to buy a
>pool," because a heatwave was making life in the cage too
>The animals use a specially designed keypad with about 400 keys, each
>bearing a symbol. Some symbols have simple meanings such as "apple";
>others represent more abstract concepts such as "give me", "good",
>"bad" or "help".
>The animals have to learn all the symbols and then construct sentences
>by pressing keys in the right order. The computer speaks the words and
>flashes them up on a screen. Recently Panbanisha, 14, has started
>writing words on the floor using chalk - apparently learning letters
>from the computer screens.
>Duane Rumbaugh, the university's professor of psychology and biology,
>who is director of the centre, said tests suggested the animals had
>the language and cognitive skills of a four-year-old child.
>Panbanisha has gone further than just learning to speak and read. She
>is teaching the same skills to her one-year-old son Nyota, who has
>developed a vocabulary similar to that of a one-year-old child. He
>cannot create sentences yet, but his early start means he may soon
>outstrip his mother. Apes could soon be talking to each other and
>language skills could be passed from one generation to the next.
>Panbanisha's mother, Matata, cannot use the keyboard, so she tells
>Panbanisha, who then communicates her mother's needs, such as: "Matata
>wants a banana."
>When the apes look reflective, they may be asked what is
>wrong. Sometimes they just reply: "I'm thinking about eating
>something," or "I want to go to Campers Cavern" (a location in their
>55-acre site).
>Now Rumbaugh has been given a US government grant for a project to see
>if great apes can be given the power of true speech.
>Until recently it had been thought they would never speak because
>their voice boxes could not produce the range of sounds used by
>Then researchers noticed that some animals were successfully copying
>human words and phrases. The sounds were distorted, but
>recognisable. A spokesman for the centre said: "Over time our opinions
>of apes could change and one day we may have to extend them human
>rights. Who knows, soon Panbanisha may voice an opinion on that."
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