You’re not hallucinating. That dolphin really is using a huge underwater tablet

The question “Are dolphins smart enough to use a smartphone?” sounds like part of a conversation two stoned first-year marine biology students might have in a dorm room at 1 in the morning. In fact, it’s the basis for a major collaborative project between researchers at Rockefeller University and Hunter College, who are working side by side with the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

They’ve developed a giant, 8-foot-long underwater touchscreen device for dolphins that allows the aquatic mammals to make choices regarding a number of activities by selecting options using a keyboard and some dolphin-friendly apps. The setup even comes with underwater speakers, microphones, and cameras.

“The ‘why’ is always first,” Marcelo Magnasco, professor and head of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience at Rockefeller University, told Digital Trends. “We want to probe the minds of dolphins. Since dolphins are highly ‘trainable,’ we want to avoid any means of interacting with them that involves explicitly training them. We don’t want to put words — or fish — in their mouths. [Instead] we want a set of tools that are engaging enough that dolphins participate in the activities because they want to.”

It’s still early stages in the research, but the team has already developed a Whack-a-Mole-style app, which one of the younger dolphins has shown interest and expertise in playing.

“Many years ago, I did a study which provided dolphins with a much simpler underwater keyboard that provided them with some choice and control, and the dolphins demonstrated self-organized learning,” said Diana Reiss, a dolphin cognition and communication research scientist and professor in the department of psychology at Hunter College. “They began to incorporate the novel whistles they acquired into their own repertoire, and appeared to use them in behaviorally appropriate contexts — like whistling a novel signal they acquired for ‘ball’ when interacting or approaching a ball. But the keyboard and technology available then was primitive, and we can go much further now with the new touchpad in terms of interactively tracking the dolphins’ behavior visually and acoustically.”

Over time, the researchers hope to discover more information regarding dolphin whistle communication, and their semantic content. “We’ve just begun what will be many years of research,” Magnasco said.

We’ll watch this space with interest. But we’re saying right now that if the test subjects wind up using their giant iPad for nothing more than constantly playing Bejeweled, we’re reevaluating those stories about dolphin intelligence!

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