Kanzi - a star pupil at the Bonobo Trust Sanctuary
Monkeys possessing tablets is no big deal, my brother carries one. That is not the case here. These are real apes! Seven bonobos from the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, use a day-to-day vocabulary of around 400 words to communicate with humans, though not verbally. Instead they associate each word with symbols (lexigrams) which are placed on a large wall mounted touch screen display in their cage. The symbol-word interface is part of the Bonobo Chat app which the Trust Sanctuary is developing.
The apes communicate with the humans by touching the appropriate lexigrams and from the news doing the rounds, the group of seven have become pretty talkative after having gotten the hang of talking to their distant cousins.
The experiment is so much a success that the institute is planning to give the apes the power of mobile technology, planning to develop an app that would enable the same lexigram in portable gadgets (tablets) in the hands of the apes.
A tablet with lexigrams from the Bonobo Chat app
Monkey business indeed! But what do humans gain from talking or hearing chit chat from bonobos.
Researchers are actually excited about the prospects.
One of the Bonobo Chat app’s uses would be its ability to act as a human-ape translator. If perfected, people will be able to speak into the device in plain English which would trigger the associated lexigram on the screen. The apes can talk back by touching the screen.
Of course, complex sentences are out of the questions. But the system is capable of meaningful two-way conversations and this would enable scientists to get feedback from the apes on their environment among other things.
The apes could also use the system to control their environment – for example they could open a door or get food from a vending machine by touching the appropriate symbol.
Talk about room service!
Then there is the RoboBonobo, a robot placed outside the enclosure of the apes. Since humans are not allowed to interact with the bonobos inside their enclosure, the Sanctuary Trust has designed a water-gun-equipped robot which the apes themselves can control if connected with the app.
That way the apes will be able to physically interact with people, playing chase games or squirting the water gun. Once the mobile devices are up and running, the interactions could also be online, bringing a global audience into the picture.
The idea maybe a little farfetched but the PR as well as the research insights the programme will reel in is invaluable for the Bonobo Trust. This initiative is not one of a kind either. The Orangutan Outreach program is working on getting iPads for apes in zoos, to provide them with mental stimulation.
The Bonobo sanctuary meanwhile is trying to raise funds for the Bonobo Chat development. If someone donates more than $500 to the cause he can get the grand prize of Skype-chatting with one of the stars among the seven — Kanzi or Panbanisha.