The seven bonobos living at the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, are a pretty smart bunch of apes. Among other things, they have a vocabulary of about 400 words – they don’t speak those words, but instead associate the meanings of them with symbols known as lexigrams. Using large wall-mounted touchscreen displays, they are able to communicate with humans by touching the appropriate lexigrams on those displays. Now, the sanctuary wants to develop an app that could be used on mobile versions of the wall screens, so tablet-wielding bonobos could communicate from wherever they happen to be.

One of the Bonobo Chat app’s more interesting features would be its ability to act as a sort of human-ape translator. People could simply speak into their device in English, at which point the app would select lexigrams corresponding to their words, and display those on the screen of the selected bonobo’s device. Conversely, once an ape had poked out a series of lexigrams on their screen, a corresponding spoken message would be played back by the human’s device. We’re not talking about complex sentences, obviously, but two-way conversations nonetheless.

A prototype of the tablet which would run the Bonobo Chat app

The apes could also use the devices to control their environment – by selecting the appropriate lexigram, for instance, they could do things such as open a door, operate a vending machine, or watch a movie.

They could also use it to control RoboBonobo, a water gun-equipped wheeled robot located outside of their enclosure. Because visitors generally aren’t able to go in with the apes, RoboBonobo would still allow the bonobos to physically interact with those people, such as by playing chase games or squirting them with water. Using the video output from an onboard camera, the apes could even play with people in another room, or – because the mobile devices communicate via the internet – in another country.

Two prototypes of the RoboBonobo robot

It may all sound a little outrageous to some people, but it’s certainly not the only project of its kind. The Orangutan Outreach program, for example, is working on getting iPads into the hands of apes in zoos, to provide them with mental stimulation. The Wild Dolphin Project, meanwhile, is working on a device that would allow communications between humans and dolphins.

The Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary is currently raising funds for the development of Bonobo Chat, on Kickstarter. If you’re feeling particularly generous, a pledge of US$500 or more will get you a Skype “chat” with one of the sanctuary’s two start pupils, Kanzi or Panbanisha.

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