Cat's got your tongue?

TAU prize offers $10 million to quack code of animal communication

Annual contest seeks to stimulate the use of AI in animal language research with ‘the ultimate aim of interspecies communication’

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative photo of a baby chimpanzee and her human caregivers, at the Jerusalem Zoo, on March 29, 2007. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90
Illustrative photo of a baby chimpanzee and her human caregivers, at the Jerusalem Zoo, on March 29, 2007. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90

A prize of $10 million will be awarded to the research team that “cracks the code” and develops true inter-species dialogue between humans and animals using AI modeling, the Jeremy Coller Foundation and Tel Aviv University said in a Thursday press release.

The “Coller-Dolittle Prize for Two-way Inter-species Communication” is a multi-year project that aims to “take advantage of progress in artificial intelligence, and especially large language models, in order to achieve the ultimate aim of interspecies communication,” the release said.

The prize includes an annual $100,000 award for “contributions to decipher, interface or mimic non-human organism communication,” with the grand prize of $10 million in equity investments (or $500,000 cash) reserved for true animal communication, in which “the animal communicates independently without recognizing that it is communicating with humans.”

Humans have always been able to communicate with animals to some extent –most famously, monkeys have been taught to talk with humans using sign language. However, the Coller-Dolittle Prize, named in part after “Dr. Dolittle,” the movie character who could speak with animals, offers specific criteria: Using “a non-invasive approach to communicate with or decipher an organism’s communication”; demonstrating communication in “more than one context (e.g., alarm, mating, foraging) using the organism’s endogenous communication signals”; and demonstrating a “measurable response of the organism to the signals broadcasted to it.”

The idea is similar to the Turing Test, in which a computer AI model is measured by how much it can mimic human thought processes or “pass” as a human being during human-computer dialogue. In this case, the aim is to use a Turing Test model in the field of “communication with non-human organisms,” the release said.

“In recent years, the scientific community’s understanding of the communication patterns of non-human organisms has advanced in leaps and bounds. I hope the global scientific community embraces the challenge and opportunity offered by this prize… we look forward to peer reviewing submissions,” said Prof. Yossi Yovel of Tel Aviv University.

Yovel, a researcher into bat communication, is chair of the Coller-Dolittle Prize committee, a panel of experts that includes Prof. Inbal Arnon of the Hebrew Univesity Psychology Department, Prof. Mirjam Knörnschild of the Freie Universität Berlin Biology Department, Prof. Elodie Florianr Mandel-Briefer, an ecologist at the University of Copenhagen, Prof. Oded Rechavi, a geneticist at TAU, Prof. Amir Teicher, who teaches the history of science at TAU, and others.

The deadline for submissions is July 31, 2024, with the first annual award to be announced by the end of the year.

“I am convinced that the power of AI can help us to unlock interspecies conversation,” much like “the Rosetta Stone unlocked the secrets of the hieroglyphics,” said British businessman and philanthropist Jeremy Coller, whose Jeremy Coller Foundation sponsors the prize.

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