“Digital technologies, so often associated with our alienation from nature, are offering us an opportunity to listen to nonhumans in powerful ways, reviving our connection to the natural world,” writes in her new book, .Automated listening posts have been set up in ecosystems around the planet, from rainforests to the depths of the ocean, and miniaturization has allowed scientists to stick microphones onto animals as small as honeybees. “Combined, these digital devices function like a planetary-scale hearing aid: enabling humans to observe and study nature’s sounds beyond the limits of our sensory capabilities,” Bakker writes. All those devices create a ton of data, which would be impossible to go through manually. So researchers in the fields of bioacoustics (which studies sounds made by living organisms) and ecoacoustics (which studies the sounds made by entire ecosystems) are turning to artificial intelligence to sift through the piles of recordings, finding patterns that might help us understand what animals are saying to each other. There are now databases of whale songs and honeybee dances, among others, that Bakker writes could one day turn into “a zoological version of Google Translate.”
But it’s important to remember that we aren’t necessarily discovering these sounds for the first time. As Bakker points out in her book, Indigenous communities around the world have long been aware that animals have their own forms of communication, while the Western scientific establishment has historically dismissed the idea of animal communication outright. Many of the researchers Bakker highlights in her book faced intense pushback from the scientific community when they suggested whales, elephants, turtles, bats, and even plants made sounds and even might have languages of their own. They spent nearly as much time pushing back against the pushback as they did conducting research.While that seems to be changing with our increased understanding of animals, Bakker cautions that the ability to communicate with animals stands to be either a blessing or a curse, and we must think carefully about how we will use our technological advancements to interact with the natural world. We can use our understanding of our world’s sonic richness to gain a sense of kinship with nature and even potentially heal some of the damage we have wrought, but we also run the risk of using our newfound powers to assert our domination over animals and plants. We are on the edge of a revolution in how we interact with the world around us, Bakker told Recode. Now, we must decide which path we will follow in the years ahead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.