So here we all are, stuck in our homes (or we should be – shame on you if you’re out gallivanting) because of what we apparently caught from a bat. Most of us are sort of irrationally terrified of bats, and here it turns out that might be a well-founded concern, though not for the Dracula-inspired reasons we all thought.
I find it all the more amusing that I am seeing an unusually large number of articles about bats lately, albeit not in relation to the pandemic. What gives? It’s not even Halloween.
For example, on January 18, there was this story about the Bat cave, er, bat caves in Thailand, where scientists are hanging out looking for some clue about the coronavirus.
I love how this story starts with, “The bat caves reeked of bat.” Um. Duh.
Apparently, the people who study winged animals like bats are called chiropterologists. Who knew? Batman really missed out calling his helicopter the “chiropter.”
It’s really a shame that bats are linked with causing disease when another winged creature, pigeons, have been found to help with diagnosing them, which one would imagine is a path to cure. A study from 2015 found that pigeons have a knack for reading radiologic images of cancer pathology and identifying problematic scans. And here radiologists have been worried about being replaced by computers when the real enemy is the pigeon. If bats are driving up healthcare costs, perhaps pigeons can help us drive them down?
Next up was a story about how our aforementioned chiropterologists went out into the field and discovered orange colored bats living among the black ones. Orange bats were previously unknown to science, which is a damn shame because black and orange bats would really spice up a Halloween story.
These orange bats, whose hair resembles something recently seen in certain political circles and which is now more commonly found in Florida, are an entirely new species, which sent, ahem, chiropterologists into quite a happy dance. Said one, “There aren’t a lot orange bats in the world. I don’t tend to work with that many brightly colored bats. It’s definitely an unusual one for me.” At a time when diversity is very much in the news, it’s great to see that bats are doing their part. Orange is the new black, indeed.
But really my favorite bat story in recent news is this one, describing how scientists have used machine learning to decode what bats are actually saying when they talk to each other. What’s particularly funny about this story is that all that science and computing horsepower has uncovered this: it turns out that bats are pretty much always arguing with each other. In other words, the net result of massive amounts of artificial intelligence applied to bats came up with the news that bats sound exactly like married couples who have been stuck together too long inside due to the – wait for it – bat-caused pandemic.
Bat banter analysts say that they have translated about 60% of bat speak, and that this effort has uncovered that most bat arguments boil down to these: 1) bats are arguing about food (“you make dinner for a change!”; 2) bats disputing their positions within the sleeping cluster (“hey, get off my side!”); 3) male bats are annoying female bats by making unwanted mating advances (“dude, seriously, I am on a zoom call!”); and, 4) bats are annoyed that another bat sitting too close (“give me some freaking space – can I not have two minutes to myself?”). Really? This is what we are learning with AI? Hell, I could have told you that if you stick any two creatures next to each other in a confined space for too long (see Bat Cave), especially one that “reeks of bat,” then little bat divorce lawyers would be flying along any minute.
Apparently, there are apps for translating cat speak, even one that runs on the Amazon Alexa. But frankly, I don’t need this app because I already know that 100% of my cat’s vocalizations of late are either “Feed Me Now,” or “Is that Damn Puppy Still Here?” I suspect 94% of them are in the latter category. Cats don’t waste a lot of time arguing; they know they are always right so why bother?
I wish that someone could perfect this AI translation tool for humans to use to figure out what other humans are ACTUALLY saying to them. So much comes out as “I’m angry!” when at least half of that may well be “I’m scared!” “I’m sick of watching TV!” or “Dude, seriously, I’m on a Zoom call!”
We are definitely going to need a better way of communicating given all that has gone on in the world lately, and especially in the U.S. But I fear we will need a far more sensitive and specific form of AI, because we already know that most of what we are hearing from each other these days is arguing (or, for you Monty Python fans, contradiction). No one is feeling their best and if you bring COVID or politics into the mix, the bat-like screeching is not far behind.
If we can actually talk to bats, perhaps one of these chiropterists can ask them what the hell they were thinking sticking us with this COVID nightmare? Now that we are nearly a year into this, no doubt the substance of the speech in my own house has begun to sound like the bats’. Let’s hope that when we all fly out of our caves and emerge back into society, we will have found some more civilized ways to communicate. We are really going to need them.
And in case you are wondering what the NA,NA,NA,NA,NA,NA,NA,NA refers to, it’s the original Batman theme! See for yourself.