Shock the Monkey! Peter Gabriel Wants an Interspecies Internet

At TED2013, Peter Gabriel introduced the idea of an internet for animals.

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Peter Gabriel performs during his Back to Front tour at PH Live at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on October 5, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Will cats find LOLcats as funny as we do? Will slow lorises watch tickling slow loris over and over again? Will apes have funny baby sneezing on repeat? Peter Gabriel wants to find out. In a TED presentation this past weekend, the “Sledgehammer” singer launched an initiative to create an inter-species internet.

Perhaps the most amazing tool man has created is the Internet,” Gabriel said. “What would happen if we could somehow find new interfaces—visual, audio—to allow us to communicate with the remarkable beings we share the planet with?”

In a move sure to give new meaning to his hit song “In Your Eyes,” Gabriel told the TED audience that he”always looked into the eyes of animals” and wondered what was going on inside their heads. After reading about developments in animal communication research by Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist who studies intelligence in animals, the iconic singer started cold calling scientists (including Reiss) in the hopes of finding an animal with whom he could play music and build a connection. Gabriel had experienced the power of music to bridge cultural gaps and wanted to test music’s ability to bridge the species gap. “I work with a lot of musicians from around the world. Often we don’t have any common language at all. We sit behind our instruments and it’s a way to connect,” Gabriel told the TED audience.

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At the TED conference, Gabriel showed a video of a duet between himself and a bonobo, after the chimpanzee was given a keyboard for the first time. (You can see part of their performance here.) The inter-species duet got Gabriel thinking about what would happen if we could somehow find new visual and audio means of communicating with animals.

The idea may not be as outlandish as you think. Gabriel eventually teamed up with Reiss; Neil Gershenfeld, the Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms; and internet pioneer Vint Cerf to figure out how to wire up all the planet’s inhabitants. Gershenfeld had already started to think about “how you integrate the rest of the biomass of the planet into the Internet” into his work. And Cerf, who helped create the internet as we know it, noted, “These interactions with other animals will teach us, ultimately, how we might interact with an alien from another world,” adding “I can hardly wait.”

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