If you gave lots of chimpanzees across the world video conferencing equipment, would it encourage them to communicate with one another internationally? And if they did communicate, how would they do it? A new experiment, backed by English singer-songwriter/musician Peter Gabriel, the former Genesis frontman, aims to find out whether or not chimpanzees are inherently technophobes when it comes to social technology.
The researchers will observe the chimps to determine how similarly or differently they communicate online compared to humans.
The trial, which begins in the spring of 2016, will focus initially on a group of chimps at Monkey World in Wareham, Dorset, south-west England. The 65-acre centre assists governments across the world to stop the smuggling of wild primates. Refugees of this illegal trade as well as primates that have suffered neglect or abuse are rehabilitated by Monkey World into natural living groups.
Will rescued chimps recognize their old buddies in the African jungle, and if so, how will they communicate with them?
Experiment will extend to African jungle
As soon as the chimps have got used to the equipment, the trial will be extended to the African rainforest, where primates released from the same rescue centre will be able to reunite with their old buddies via the video conferencing facility.
The researchers hope the chimps will recognize each other and ‘chat’ online. The equipment will be embedded behind clear glass or in trees. The glass protects the devices from chimp mishandling and perhaps also sudden episodes of tech-rage.
The experiment will be turned into two documentary movies in collaboration with Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, London, where Isaac, Mr. Gabriel’s son, attends.
Extend video conferencing to other animals
The researchers and Mr. Gabriel would like to eventually extend video-conferencing facilities to other groups of chimps across the world, and also other animal species such as elephants and dolphins.
The first step is to determine how the animals use the equipment to communicate, and then adapt the technology so that humans can communicate more effectively with other species.
Chimpanzees enjoy watching TV and are known to get quite excited when some shows are on.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Mr. Gabriel said:
“The idea is to extend a big video network that already exists in labs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology so that different species including our own have a chance to communicate.”
“I am absolutely certain the monkeys will use the video cameras in Monkey World to communicate with each other. I am also interested in how they would use the internet to communicate.”
Dutch chimps picked up Scottish accent
Earlier this year, a team of scientists from the University of Zurich in Switzerland and the University of York in England reported that when Dutch chimps moved in with Scottish ones, they eventually picked up the local grunt – but only when they bonded with their new companions.
Peter Brian Gabriel (born 1950) rose to fame as the original lead singer-flautist of the rock band Genesis. After leaving the band in 1975, we went on to a successful solo career. He was closely involved in the setting up and running of ‘The Interspecies Internet‘, a non-profit organization that facilitates interspecies communication.
The word for ‘apple’ among the chimps at Beekse Bergen Safari Park in the Netherlands was uttered with a high-pitched grunt, compared to a much lower pitch for the same fruit in Edinburgh Zoo.
When the Dutch apes were moved to Edinburgh, they adopted the ‘Scottish accent’ after three years.
Dr. Simon Townsend, who works at the University of Zurich, said the following regarding humans’ and apes’ ability to reference external objects and events with socially learned symbols, or words:
“These findings might shed some light on the evolutionary origins of these abilities. The fact that both humans and now chimpanzees possess this basic ability suggests that our shared common ancestor living over 6 million years ago may also have been socially learning referential vocalizations.”
Video – Ape self-recognition
In this National Geographic video, scientists set up tests to show that great apes can recognize themselves in the mirror.