If you’ve read some of my prior articles on TechRepublic you’re probably aware that I’m passionate about the ways in which technology can be used to help humanity and the environment. At the risk of sounding like a Marvel superhero, technology should be used to make the world a better place. That includes animals as well as people.

I learned about an organization called the Gorilla Foundation whose mission statement is “to learn about gorillas by communicating with them, and apply our knowledge to advance great ape conservation, education, care and empathy — conservation through communication.” They have two gorillas at their facility named Koko and Ndume and use specialized mobile apps to work with their charges. These gorillas use sign language to communicate and the Foundation employs staff as dual caregivers/researchers who work with them directly thanks to these apps, which record data and enhance contact between humans and gorillas in ways I’ll explore below.

Intrigued by the possibilities and the benefits of this application of technology, I spoke with Dr. Gary Stanley at the Gorilla Foundation to learn more. Dr. Stanley has been with the Foundation for more than 16 years and currently serves as the Executive Director (previously Director of Educational Technology). In addition to his leadership role, he has also developed the apps they use to work with and care for the great apes. Throughout the course of our conversation I found his enthusiasm, in-depth knowledge and affection for the personalities and habits of the gorillas at his organization to be quite inspiring.

“We’d been using Filemaker for about 10 years, but in a more conventional way for business purposes, such as in-house tasks and customized things,” Dr. Stanley told me. “Previously we’d relied on handwritten notebooks for gorilla research and care data, which wasn’t particularly advantageous in sharing details. At some point it became clear that caregivers could make use of Filemaker to share data for better insights. We built a gorilla research and care database then a customized app to work with it. The app connects to our Filemaker server and the people working with the gorillas access that data. They can enter notes and other multimedia information about the gorillas and then search, share, collaborate or analyze the information. Filemaker has evolved over the past several years to make this possible so these mobile apps run on staff iPads.”

Gary developed most of the app by himself and said it doesn’t require a lot of help. He did use some consultants for input here and there, but commented that “Filemaker has the easiest developer interface we’ve ever worked with – it’s a breath of fresh air. We were able to keep track of something that got big and complex quite rapidly. I make the changes as needed myself and call a consultant once or twice per year if we need to add a new feature. For example, we are about to employ a feature with streaming videos where Filemaker lets you have direct access to the time codes through clicking a button. This will allow you to navigate anywhere in the video by clicking on a link. One thing that impressed me about Filemaker is that it has a graphical editor to visualize the relationships between tables – this made it easy to make the development complexity vary linearly over time even though the complexity of the relationships can grow exponentially. Without that we couldn’t have done everything we did – it’s very scalable.”

Let’s take a look at the Gorilla Foundation app.

As you can see from the above screenshot, the categories are fairly self-explanatory. The diary feature records what the gorillas have been communicating, doing, feeling, or their other activities of daily life along with health and nutrition data. Photos and videos present multimedia, and Signs provides access to a database of Koko’s sign language to help communicate with the gorillas (Koko knows over 1000 signs of American Sign Language (ASL)).

For instance, a diary entry might appear as follows:

The app uses customized, coded keys to indicate what the gorillas are signing, how they’re signing it, and whether they are responding to questions or communicating spontaneously on their own (see the following screenshot).

It’s easy to access diary entries for other days or other gorillas:

The diary can also automatically record and summarize which behaviors and signs the gorillas have used (see the following screenshot):

The Foundation intends to plot this data over time to interpret and analyze decades worth of interspecies communication research.

It’s also possible to look up and review the signs themselves for visual demonstrations and their translations.

“Unlike most sign language apps where you have to type in a word, you might only see a motion from the gorilla so you can enter a description of the motion, position of the hand, et cetera,” Dr. Stanley told me. “For instance, entering ‘right hand by the ear’ gives back a subset of the signs whereby you can recognize the right one by sight, e.g. bring.”

“Do the gorillas use single words or sentences?” I asked.

“KoKo uses sentences between one and eight words, and she has invented about 10% of those signs herself,” he replied. “Gorillas also have their own natural sign language and we’re just beginning to get a handle on that. The purpose of the sign language, coding, data and videos is to motivate conservation and improved care in captivity. We’re not just studying language for the sake of seeing how much language they can learn but rather we’re getting to know their thoughts and feelings. We want to establish a pattern of trends – how much do they understand about the world, do they empathize, have feelings, demonstrate sharing, etc. We want the public to be able to use the app as well — to learn sign language from Koko herself, and as a teaching tool for other great ape facilities”

“Is the app publicly available now?” I asked.

“Not at the moment but we are working on creating one that will run directly on iOS and Android,” Dr. Stanley informed me. “Our goal is to make the app available to millions of people – but we will need a technology partner to help with the conversion to iOS and Android. In fact, any such partner interested in helping out can reach us through koko.org. We’re also reaching out to colleagues at other great ape facilities to see if our database app can be a resource for them; to enrich gorilla care for both gorillas and caregivers.”

“Are you developing an app the gorillas might use?” I asked.

“We’re going to experiment with that. Apes are a lot smarter than us in some ways-they don’t like being in front of a screen for long periods. Koko prefers face to face interactions which involve smell and touch rather than looking at faces on a screen. However, there may be some useful elements to apps for apes. For example, Koko likes movies and to select her meals – so maybe an interface which provides those possibilities would be handy, along with an interface where she can control l the light, temperature and content of her environment. The gorillas aren’t demanding this app, of course – but it would be worth exploring it with them. There’s even been some effort by others to create an ‘interspecies internet’ to see whether gorillas and other species will use technology to communicate with each others and us if given the opportunity. We could use sign language to help bring them on-line. However, I’m not sure they really want to participate in an interspecies social network. It’s a topic for future research.”

“Can you tell me about the gorillas themselves?”

“Koko is 44 and Ndume is 34. They are very close companions and have no children. Koko has been with the Foundation since she was a year old. Ndume has been with her since he was 10 – she actually chose him through a video date!

One of our goals is to develop a natural family group for (multiple females with one male plus one or more young gorillas) so that Koko can experience her life-long dream of being a mother, and teach sign language to the next generation. Sometimes we’re asked: ‘Why don’t we just let gorillas be gorillas and communicate in their own way?’ First, it’s like being an American in France – it helps to learn some French. And second, gorillas seem to have a natural gestural language of their own; so we’re just teaching them one that we can both understand. Furthermore, we believe it’s our responsibility to teach them at least some elements of a shared language so we can better understand their needs and wants, interact with them in more meaningful ways, and establish interspecies empathy, which may be the only way to save them from extinction. ”

“What are your parting thoughts regarding the value of the data you’re collecting on gorillas?”

“People in Africa hunting gorillas who see multimedia data like ours find it difficult to continue viewing them as dumb animals and hunting them for meat,” Dr. Stanley stated. “But it’s also important for us to get these interspecies communication apps into the hands of zoos, sanctuaries and the general public, so that we all can share the epiphany of being able to ‘talk with the animals'”

You can visit koko.org to learn more about the Gorilla Foundation, it’s staff and their goals.

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