To a human with a good grasp of English, these words may appear simple. Trying to understand any other set of the words meaning requires deciphering ambiguity and implication. “A naive person who looks at language thinks the words are what they are,” says Dr. Ken Schweller dually appointed professor of psychology and computer science at Buena Vista University. “Let’s take another sentence – ‘I saw a red ball’. Could it mean I cut a red-colored round object? Operated on an inflamed testicle? Observed a Communist crying?”.
The words could suggest that she is smart and the test is hard if Matata is a student. And if Matata is (and she is) an ape, the answer has implications for how humans acquire and understand language.
Schweller’s graduate school experiments with how people understand language led him to seek the answer through computers, and through computers to help Des Moines’ Great Ape Trust– the world’s. foremost ape language research institution– explore the boundaries of the animals’ ability to comprehend human speech. He began working with the Trust as a programmer and now serves as Chair of the Board of Directors.
“I’m also listed on several Trust grants to serve as ‘a male role model’ for Teco as he grows up,” says Schweller of the Great Ape Trust’s youngest bonobo. “I can do things like demonstrate how to get along with others and speak with him. In August, I stood on a rock and jumped off. At first I thought he ignored me, but 20 minutes later he did the same thing. In psychology we call it ‘delayed imitation,’ and it’s significant in children’s development. It means they have a mental representation of an event that happened.”.
Born June 1, 2010, Teco is a one of seven bonobos currently living at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, and the first to be born there since the 200-acre facility opened in 2002. He is unique– the first third-generation ape trained to communicate with humans through language, which he. does with the help of a touch-screen keyboard whose most recent interface is designed by Schweller with the assistance of several of his advanced BVU computer science students.
“Sign language can be open to interpretation,” says Schweller. “There’s ambiguity in what the apes are signing and how we’re interpreting it that’s absent in the digital environment. We also record and timestamp everything they say to analyze it.”.
Schweller got involved with the Trust when– during his seven-year run as Dean of BVU’s School of Science– he invited primatologist Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh to speak at the 2004 dedication of the Estelle Siebens Science Center building. Her research drove the founding of the Trust. As Senior Scientist and Executive Director she spends most of her day with the apes in what the Trust describes as a “pan-Homo” culture– that is, humans and apes living together. In 2011, she. was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” for her research.
“Sue is from Missouri, and we had that bond in common,” says Schweller. “Like me, she’s a cognitive psychologist also interested in artificial intelligence. After she spoke at BVU, I asked if there was anything I could do for the Trust. The first programs I built were Pac Man-type mazes. Today, I’m the head programmer there.” Central to the Trust’s approach is the idea that apes (and people) learn language best by immersion. “Humans are surrounded by language from birth and learn early to associate actions and emotions with words,” says Schweller. “Situations where the apes are invested– say, when they want to go outside and they can’t, or having a choice over what’s for dinner– those are the authentic social situations which best promote language acquisition.”.
The breakthrough in ape language research came in the early 1980s, when Savage-Rumbaugh was attempting to teach Matata to communicate through an earlier version of the lexigram (symbol) keyboard. “They were using reinforcement– you show an apple, say apple, make the sign for apple, and wait for them to do it and reward them,” says Schweller. “It turns out you can’t teach an ape language that way. You can’t teach a human that way. But Matata’s adopted baby Kanzi was listening while they were trying to teach her, and that changed everything.”.
While the reinforcement method resulted in what the Trust describes as “30,000 mostly unsuccessful language trials” for Matata, when the elder ape was separated from young Kanzi for. breeding, the two-year-old displayed an interest in the lexigram keyboard.
Distraught at her absence, Kanzi pressed more than 300 buttons during the first day of separation, asking for food and help finding his mother. Today, the Trust reports that Kanzi knows over 500 symbols and can understand several thousand spoken words.
Schweller’s touch-screen keyboard is programmed to display up to 600 lexigrams that the apes associate with English words, based on a mechanical version originally developed by Savage -Rumbaugh’s research associate and ex-husband, Dr. Duane Rumbaugh, which he famously used in the 1970s with the chimpanzee Lana. Schweller himself is known by the lexigram, a yellow and blue arch depicting BVU’s iconic symbol and colors. He designed the keyboard and worked on many software projects on a Fall 2010 sabbatical, during which he volunteered at the Trust.
Rumbaugh’s original symbols were displayed by a projector through a series of lenses that could be combined to make shapes, their designs constrained by the technology.
As it became apparent that apes understood the symbols– and as the need for a larger vocabulary grew– more symbols were added, some abstract and others that had visual suggestions like pictograms or Chinese characters. Changes in the third generation of lexigrams– which incorporate English words in Roman letters into the design– were implemented largely to make comprehension easier for humans working with the apes, as was the fourth generation (largely Scwheller’s contribution) that uses a combination of letters and colors which humans can read as letters and the apes understand as symbols.
Kanzi’s son Teco has been raised mainly on the fourth-generation symbols. “Teco is not being raised as a human,” Schweller says. “He spends time with Sue, but also with all the other apes. The Trust wants to raise him in both cultures.”.
Bonobos are favored for human/ape interactive research because of their gentle disposition. Unlike their close cousins the chimpanzees, they are a matriarchal society. They are also an endangered species, with fewer than 70 individuals in captivity and 50,000 in the wild in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“It’s like talking to a four-year-old, but sometimes four-year-olds say very interesting things,” says Schweller, who inherited his interest in language from his mother who taught middle school English and writing for over 25 years. “The apes live in the here and now. They’re very interested in food and what’s for lunch. If you broke a promise, they remember. Sue’s told them that I designed the keyboard. They seem happy to see me and don’t display aggression, as they sometimes do with taller human males. I think they understand I’m a friend of Sue’s, and a friend of Sue’s is a friend of theirs.”.
Lexigrams comprise a secondary language for the bonobos. Their native language consists of high-pitched squeaks, cries and hoots. So far, figuring out what the apes are telling each other in that language has proved difficult for humans says Schweller.
As a professor, Schweller works hard to involve students in computer science: a subject that many have a strong interest in, but which can be difficult to learn.
While a student of Schweller, Shepherd was a member of a team that won the 1996 Sun/Oracle Java World Cup, earning $78,000 for BV.”.
I knew when we won the Java Prize that Jason was destined to become a college professor, and I hoped that he might come back and teach,” says Schweller. “As I look toward retirement this spring, the program is fortunate to have him.”.
The same year they won the Java prize (1996), Schweller won the George Wythe Award, BVU’s highest honor for teaching excellence. In 1997, Schweller used the sabbatical he earned from the Wythe award to work in Washington, D.C. with the IMS Global Consortium, a non-profit information technology organization. During that time, he served as Programming and Design Consultant to Blackboard Learning Systems, a course management system that helps to facilitate courses’ online components.
“He works hard to make sure his students understand the basics before moving them on to more difficult concepts,” says Ellen Hartstack, Class of 2011. “Both his projects and classes taught me a great deal about knowing when to ask for help, but more importantly they taught me that sometimes you have to make a whole bunch of errors before you’ll end up getting it right.”.
Hartstack was Schweller’s academic assistant for three years, working with him on such projects as “Learn to Read” software for the Trust and utilizing her voice for the lexigram keyboard. “Dr. Schweller simply outlined the type of software the Trust was looking for and let us go to town,” she says. “He was always there to lend a hand, but through our struggles Alex Pelelo, Class of 2011– Dr. Schweller’s other academic assistant– and I learned far more than either of us could have ever imagined. Plus we created a working, adaptive piece of software for the Trust to use.”.
Schweller has used his work with the Trust to involve BVU students in other ways, including the creation of “Robo Bonobo,” a robotic ape the Trust’s flesh- and-blood hominids can control to interact with visitors.
Other elements of work with the Trust build on teaching elements that have been long present in Schweller’s teaching career, such as creating video “Dr. Schweller is a master teacher, not only for his skills as an orator, but even more notably for his ability to engage students in learning by doing,” says Jason Shepherd, Class of 1999, assistant professor of computer science at BVU. “Ken’s classes are an experience of full immersion. He knows that the single most important skill for a computer scientist to acquire is independent learning.”.