The iPad: helping orangutans communicate

A new program at Miami Zoo involves using iPads to communicate with orangutans. With tougher "orangutan-proof" screens, the zoo may let the general public in on the high-tech gabfest, as well.

(Orangutan image by Kabir Bakie, CC BY-SA 2.5)

People who work at Miami's Jungle Island zoo have joined in on a hi-tech way to communicate with orangutans. Rather than using old-fashioned sign language, they're using iPads.

According to the Associated Press, trainers are working specifically with 8-year-old twin orangutans, helping them draw, play games, and work on new vocabulary as part of a mental stimulus program.

"Our young ones pick up on it. They understand it. It's like, 'Oh I get this'," Linda Jacobs, who oversees the program, told the Associated Press. "Our two older ones, they just are not interested. I think they just figure, 'I've gotten along just fine in this world without this communication skill here and the iPad, and I don't need a computer'."

The iPad software that Jacobs is using with the apes was initially made for people with autism. Last year, there were reports that autistic children were able to use the tablet for gaming and making puzzles, and also for communicating ideas to family members who were unable to understand the children's needs.

The software installed on the iPads shows pictures of objects that the trainer identifies, and then allows for the orangutans to touch a corresponding button. This type of technology could eventually lead to the general public being able to "talk" to the apes (who don't have voice boxes or vocal cords).

Miami Zoo isn't the first to think of using iPads with primates. Last year, Milwaukee Zoo started showing iPads to its orangutans, and letting them interact with the screen — but the devices were too frail for the orangutans to hold themselves.

Despite the advances made using iPads with orangutans, this limitation has yet to be overcome; and the screens are too small (for ape hands). Trainers have to hold the tablets. Jacobs is hoping to get more durable and large "orangutan-proof screens" in the future so the public could correspond with the apes.

"It's really just a matter of getting the technology and equipment here," Jacobs told the Associated Press. "There's not a doubt in my mind that they could do it, and would be marvellous at it, and I think the public would absolutely love it."


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Konnect posted a comment   

Resolutionary indeed, just like Apple had envisioned.

All joking aside, it's amazing to see the tiny gap in DNA difference between humans and apes shrink even further, a few more iterations of the iPad and we might even see a few ape-specific apps!

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