Sometimes, when sitting with an iPad and raptly poking Uzu with your finger, you probably feel a little like an ape, admit it. That’s because a) you are basically just a smart ape and b) of course smart apes like touch screen tablets (heck, even lizards like them). And just like humans, the apes are using the technology to slowly peck out messages that express their thoughts and desires.

Here’s Teco, a 2-year-old bonobo:

Sitting with his Motorola Xoom tablet, he’s rapt, his dark eyes fixed on the images, fingers pecking away at the touch screen. He can’t speak, but with the aid of the tablet app I created for him, he’s building a vocabulary that will likely total several thousand words. What’s more, he’ll be able to string those words together into simple sentences and ask questions, tell jokes, and carry on conversations.

The bonobos communicate in short “sentences” made of lexigrams, a set of graphical symbols that the apes have been trained to understand and combine into phrases. Apps designed for the apes offer 600 or so lexigrams on a touch-screen keyboard, and allow researchers to easily design and implement new lexigrams as needed.


Scientists have been using computers to explore apes’ language abilities for years, but the tablets give apes more autonomy in their use — so much that baby apes have started learning to communicate:

For two years, nobody suspected that Kanzi was paying even the slightest attention to the lexigram training, although he clearly liked the lights on the keyboard and the blinking projections above. It was only when [his mother] Matata was taken away for a few weeks for breeding that researchers discovered how much Kanzi had picked up. After searching in vain for his mother, he spontaneously began using her keyboard to communicate with his caretakers. What is more, he understood the spoken words that the lexigrams represented, and he could locate their representations on the keyboard.

So much for contentedly poking at Uzu with our primate brethren — these guys are going to want to get on Twitter.