A computer program designed to sort out mouse squeaks also finds whales in the deep

Updated May 31, 2022 12:15 PM ET

Deep Squeak is the name of an artificial intelligence program that was designed to detect the high-frequency “squeaks” that mice and rats make when stressed.

But a new application of the technology places a much greater emphasis on the ‘deep’: it’s being used to search for whales and other marine mammals in an ocean environment.

If this seems like a classic case of mislabeling, blame the marine ecologist Elizabeth Ferguson and his company Ocean Science Analyticswho is leading the project.

One of the company’s lines of work is to help people building offshore wind farms track the impact of their projects on marine mammals, to ensure they are not harmed.

“Any type of operation that takes place in the ocean requires monitoring or mitigation,” Ferguson said.

You could just go out on a boat and look for whales and dolphins in the area of ​​interest, but she says that doesn’t always give you an accurate count: “Some species are hard to see on the surface or they’ve spent a lot of deep time.”

Teach a computer to detect squeaks

She found a different solution in the work of Kevin Coffey, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Washington who studies the calls rats and mice make when stressed. These calls are different from the sounds they make when unstressed.

On his longer-term projects, someone in his lab often got stuck listening to many hours of audio to identify rodent calls. He and his colleagues at the University of Washington thought they could turn to artificial intelligence to ease that burden.

“You take the audio signal, turn it into an image, and then you can see the calls with the naked eye,” Coffey explains. And computers have gotten really good at analyzing and identifying images using something called deep learning.

Coffey created a program that was good at classifying visual representations of mouse calls as stressed or unstressed, and called it Deep squeal.

In search of underwater songs

Elizabeth Ferguson heard about the program and thought what works for caged mice could be modified to work with marine mammals in the ocean.

She shows the results of using her modified version of Deep Squeak over approximately two and a half hours of audio recorded a few miles off the Oregon coast. The program has drawn a green box around anything it thinks looks like a sea mammal sound.

“You can see there’s definitely a wide range of calls and a high degree of variability in those calls, but it still did a pretty good job of picking them up,” Ferguson said.

What’s in a name?

But really: Is Deep Squeak the name you want to use for a program that detects whale calls?

“No, we’ll change it,” Ferguson laughs. “So we’re going to call it ‘Deep Waves’.”

I told him I didn’t think it had the same panache.

“Should we find something better? Do you have any suggestions ?

So far I haven’t. But if you have an idea, let me know. [email protected] I will pass it on.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gordon K. Morehouse