Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 7 / FEBRUARY 1989

Thanks For All The Fish

by Rob Weinstein


Have you ever visited a zoo or aquarium and been concerned about the animals on display? Researchers at the Cailfornia Academy of Sciences' Stelnbart Aquarium in San Francisco are working on ways to make things a bit better for them—and an Atari ST is making the research possible.

Does the image of dolphins and computers together bring to your mind some science fiction tableau with visions of a futuristic human-dolphin society? Well, you're not alone. According to Steinhart Aquarium research assistant Eric Carlson, the combination of computers and the ocean's most intelligent inhabitants conjures up all sorts of wild images, both with the press and the public.

fish1.jpg
On the cover and in this photo are some of the
stars of the Steinhart Aquarium's dolphin and
seal display. The dolphins are not bottle-nose
dolphins, like Flipper, but are of the California
white-sided species.

But the truth is that dolphins and an Atari 520ST are combining regularly in the pastoral setting of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and it is far from science fiction.

It is, in fact, a research project that has taken place regularly over the past three-and-a-half years, and which, except for the timely intervention of the Atari Corporation, MichTron, Inc. and START Magazine, would have been called to a premature end last summer.

What is actually going on, explains Carlson, is a "research project in environmental enhancement."

Relieving ths Boredom of Captivity

Essentially, Carlson says, putting a wild animal in a small, featureless tank is akin to putting a person in a jail cell. While Carlson and other scientists agree that the benefits of having animals accessible to the thousands of visitors are worth it, he is also aware of the limits the environment imposes on the captives.

These limits are particularly acute on dolphins, which are what scientists call a pelagic species. Pelagic means that dolphins generally live in the upper portion of deep water, an environment which is essentially devoid of dimension. Theirs is a world without bottom, without sides. Even the surface, which would be a clear limit for other marine life, is an essential part of the oxygen-breathing dolphin's world.

In addition, dolphins travel in large groups, sometimes totaling 1,000 individuals or more. So their keepers, at least at the Steinhart Aquarium, are concerned that the animals don't get bored or suffer reactions to captivity which are too psychologically severe.

That was the reasoning which began the "environmental enhancement" project three-and-one-half years ago.

"We are looking at the effect on behavior of providing these animals with some control over their environment," explains Carlson. "Most captive wild animals are kept in such a way that the things they do have no effect on their day-to-day lives."

Calling All Humans!

The result is an underwater keyboard made of eight PVC pipes of progressive lengths, resembling a xylophone. These pipes hang into the water, providing the dolphins--or the harbor seals with which they share a tank--an eight-key keyboard. By pushing any one of the keys, the dolphins and seals can request that the researchers undertake specific actions, from providing fish or toys to petting them.

All of which worked fine until the summer of 1988, when the Commodore 64 which the project had been using since its inception, died.

That was when Atari, at the behest of START magazine, stepped in. "We heard about the problems they were having and called Neil Harris [then Atari's Director of Product Marketing] to see if some arrangements could be made " explains START Editor Andrew Reese.

The arrangements eventually consisted of the donation of a monochrome 520ST system by the Atari Corporation, GFA BASIC 2.0 with all of its supporting modules and manuals by MichTron, Inc. and programming assistance and other software by START Magazine.

"We feel very strongly about our role in the community," explained Atari Vice-President Sig Hartmann, when asked about the donation.

"In the past we have donated equipment to causes which we felt deserved it," he continued. "We donated a computer to a community crime prevention program in Los Angeles. We like to help people where we can."

Reese echoes these sentiments. "We felt this was an area where we could make a unique contribution. This is a program which is operated largely by volunteers on a very limited research budget, and we were delighted to be able to contribute to its continuation."

The First Two Letters in Steinhart are ST

But the donations do far more than continue the program, according to Carlson. Because of the capabilities of the Atari ST the project now has an even greater opportunity to study and interact with the dolphins.

"This gives us an efficient opportunity to record the behavior of these animals instantaneously," responded aquarium director John Macosker, when asked about the contribution, "and then sort, quantify and play back that behavior in ways which would have been impossible for a researcher using a pencil and a yellow pad 20 years ago."

And just exactly what is being sorted, quantified and played back? That explanation, as it comes from Carlson, is a little more complex.

Sessions with the dolphin keyboard device are held three times a week and last for approximately 25 minutes. During that time the pipes are placed in the water, and the keys are activated. The pipes are mounted on pivots and wired to microswitches activated by movement of the pipes.

When any of the animals in the tank (currently there are two California white-sided dolphins and two harbor seals) push a pipe, it is recorded on the Atari ST located in a blind-style hut on the roof of the building. Every activation records the day, time, and identity of the key pushed. Additionally, the key pressed is displayed on the screen, via a program Carlson wrote exclusively for this research. At the same time, another observer uses a bar code system to record the activity of each of the animals in the tank both before and after the pushing of the key.

Pushing the key also triggers the ST to generate a tone, not so the dolphins can play music, but so that these auditory-oriented creatures have an additional method to differentiate the keys.

Exercising Control

The underlying concept of the experiment is to provide the dolphins with some degree of control over their environment, some way of asking their keepers for a response. Each of the active keys, therefore--currently there are five--requires that a researcher, poised out of sight next to the tank, perform a specific action.

The dolphins or seals can request fish, a white ball, a large ring made of corrugated plastic pipe (which the dolphins like to rub against), a spray of water across the surface of the tank (which the seals like to play in) or "tactile stimulation," in the form of either rubbing or petting.

"Each of these things is equally available to all of the animals," explains Carlson. "For example, if any animal pushes the right key, all of them get fish." With the exception of the fish, each of the other actions lasts a total of 30 seconds. The fish, of course, last until they are gone. The xylophone is disabled during the 30-second interval and no key can be pushed twice in succession.

In the future the three remaining keys will be activated and will provide additional auditory stimulus for the tank's residents. One key, when pressed, will provide 30 seconds of fast or active music, one key will provide slower more meditative music, and the final key will provide 30 seconds of marine mammal sounds, such as whale songs.

"We introduced the keys one at a time," explains Carlson. "We would activate a key and run sessions until we got a certain number of presses, a high enough percentage so that we were sure it was more than coincidence, and that the animals were taking a deliberate action."

Then additional keys were gradually introduced until the current level of five was reached.

"The first key was fish," says Carlson, "because in any wild animal food is such a strong selective force that we thought it might make them learn faster." However, he points out, the fish was never provided as an actual part of the dolphins necessary diet. First, he says, the amount of fish provided during an interactive session was minute (about two pounds per session, compared to the approximately 20 pounds per day the dolphins normally eat), and the sessions were held without regard to the animals regular feeding schedule.

fish2.jpg
For a marine mammal researcher, Eric Carlson is a pretty darned good
programmer. This is the title screen for his data collection program.

So, What Does a Dolphin Want?

In fact, Carlson notes, the animals frequently request fish, even though they are not hungry. "They don't always eat the fish," he says. "Some of the time they will throw it around the tank and play with it, the same way as they would with the ball."

In addition to quantifying the keyboard activity, researchers are interested in the behavior of the tank's inhabitants throughout the session. Just what does Amphitrite do while Thetus is working the keyboard? And how do the harbor seals react to the entire process?

This research requires a system slightly more complicated than just the ST-xylophone combination. Initially, a researcher with a tape recorder was stationed at a viewing window and dictated a running monologue recording the behaviors of each of the animals throughout the session. But this method has been replaced by a much more efficient bar code reader system, in which a researcher with an electronic stylus records the animals' actions with a senes of computerized bar codes, each representing an animal, a portion of the tank, and an action.

For example, while Thetus is pressing a key, Amphitrite may swim in a large circle with her belly up. The researcher scans the bar code for Amphitrite, the code for "swims fast" the code for "dorsal down," and finally the codes for each of six sections of the tank in the order in which she moves through them.

This is initially recorded on a small, hand-held computer and then is transferred to the ST to be added to the database being compiled.

fish3.jpg
The unique software provides a visual record of the animals' key-
presses and the elapsed time since the start of the session.

Surprising Results

And what conclusions have been reached through all this research?

Carlson is reluctant to say, largely because gathering the information has taken so much time that he has yet to compile it. "The ST is going to make a huge difference," he explains, "because once I write the software, I will be able to do the analysis right here on this machine. In the past I have had to take the information home and transfer it to a Macintosh."

Now that the data-gathering software is operating correctly, Carlson hopes to be able to begin work on the actual compilation and analysis.

Still, while he won't make any conclusions, he will tell some interesting "anecdotal" results.

For example, he was surprised to find that Thetus, the dolphin who currently interacts most with the keyboard, calls for the white ball even more often than for fish.

But the most surprising result emerged early in the experiment.

When the project initially began there were two dolphins and three harbor seals in the tank. Much to the researchers' astonishment, the role of communicator was quickly assumed by one of the seals, rather than by a dolphin, as had been expected. "Initially, about 90 percent of the interaction was done with one harbor seal," says Carlson.

Although he is unwilling to make any conclusions about this result, he speculates that this may be the result of the harbor seal's familiarity with objects in its environment. "Since they live by the shore they are more used to coming across objects, such as rocks and piers," he said.

This situation changed, however, when the seal which had been doing the interaction was injured and had to be removed from the tank. "When she was removed from the tank," says Carlson, "one of the dolphins, Amphitrite took over the interaction with virtually no reduction in efficiency."

Does this mean Amphitrite learned to operate the mechanism by merely watching the seal? Again, Carlson will not speculate on the workings of the dolphin mind. Still, the questions are raised. . .

fish4.jpg
A thoughtful inclusion by Carlson is a simple screen of quest-
ions regarding the necessary pre-session equipment settings.
This is intended to ensure that conditions are consistent
throughout the experiment.

High Tech, low Tech Or. . .

Aside from these questions, both Atari and the aquarium point to one additional benefit being derived from the project, the educational opportunity for the research associates involved.

Initially organized by Cal Moskowitz, a professor at San Francisco State and a Fellow with the California Academy of Sciences, the project is operated on a day to day basis by Carlson and Victoria Case, who are both currently biology graduate students at San Francisco State University. In addition there are some seven or eight volunteers who are involved with the project on a regular basis.

The aquarium recognizes the educational opportunities, both for the dolphins and for the students. "Atari, MichTron and START have been very generous and we appreciate it," says Macosker "They are contributing to some very important research, as well as important educational opportunities for these students.

"We appreciate this opportunity," he concludes "for high tech to examine lower tech. Or actually maybe we're examining even higher tech, since we can't really say where the dolphins are in relation to us. This project is showing us that we still need to determine what questions to ask them."

It is particularly gratifying to both Atari and START Magazine that an ST may play an important role in determining both the questions and their answers.

Rob Weinstein is a free-lance writer and the editor of a labor union newspaper in San Francisco.