Charlie, a chimpanzee owned by animal psychologist, Mary Lively, celebrated his 6th birthday by sending text messages on his very own laptop computer. The computer was specially designed for Charlie by Apeco Technologies at the urging of Lively, when she noticed that Charlie took an unusual interest in her computer while she did research.
Expanding on already established research done at Ohio State University where chimpanzees have been learning to read for years, Lively wanted to take it one step further and develop a tool to see whether or not a chimpanzee can first learn syntax (the stringing together of words to form a complete thought) and then be able to use that knowledge to surf the web and send text messages. “So far, we are quite encouraged,” said Lively.
The specially-designed computer is set up to automatically show words to pictures that Charlie selects on the screen in order to allow him to form simple sentences. For instance, if Charlie selected pictures of a reaching hand, a banana, and a mouth, the simple sentence would say “I would like a banana to eat.”
Charlie can then take the sentence, hit the special highlighting button, and then hit the specific “Send to Mary” button and his request will automatically send to Lively’s computer. “The learning curve is huge,” said Lively, “but little by little, we are confident that Charlie will find his voice.”
One anomaly that Lively finds potentially disturbing is that Charlie’s inbox has been receiving quite a few spam messages urging him to log onto sites of a pornographic nature. “It’s become routine for me to have to go into Charlie’s laptop several times a day and check to make sure that Charlie isn’t exposed to any media, especially explicit photos, that would confuse Charlie and compromise the progress he is making," said Lively. "We are already seeing him using new, inappropriate signs, like balling up his hands into fists, holding them at each side and thrusting his pelvis in a 'to and fro' manner, which is highly suggestive."
Although many of the messages from Charlie that land in Lively’s inbox are not yet easily understood by Lively, such as “touch to chest woman,” and “unlock mother control no child,” Lively truly believes Charlie is communicating with her and is hopeful that before long, they will be able to communicate as easily as anyone else. “When that day comes,” says Lively, “we’re going to set Charlie up with his very own Facebook page.”