Newswise — Have you ever watched a toddler play with an iPhone? Most likely, the child was captivated by the tiny icons. Two-year-old Teco is no different. 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, he's building a vocabulary that will likely total several thousand words.
Such talents wouldn't seem exceptional in a human child, but Teco is an ape--a bonobo, to be precise. For more than three decades, researchers have been working with a small group of these great apes to explore their amazing cognitive and linguistic abilities.
Teco's father, Kanzi, is the group's most famous member; animal lovers worldwide have marveled at his ability to communicate by pointing to abstract symbols. He recognizes nearly 500 of these "lexigrams," which he uses to make requests, answer questions, and compose short sentences. The spoken words he understands number in the thousands. In the July 2012 issue of IEEE Spectrum, Ken Schweller, a professor of psychology and computer science at Buena Vista University, describes how the wide availability of touch screens, tablet computers, digital recording, and wireless networking is advancing work with Kanzi and the other residents of the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Des Moines. Such technology gives researchers powerful new ways to study and unambiguously document ape communication. The results of their studies are in turn helping to spark a renaissance of technology-aided research into primate development and cognition and shedding light on the origins of culture, language, tools, and intelligence.