Koko Signs: An interview with Dr. Penny Patterson
ArcTouch recently embarked on a remarkable journey with Dr. Penny Patterson and the team at The Gorilla Foundation. Together, we collaborated to create the Koko Signs app, extending the legacy of Koko, a female western lowland gorilla who became well-known for her mastery of sign language. The free Koko Signs app promotes conservation through communication in an effort to safeguard the future of gorillas and other endangered species.
Dr. Patterson’s profound connection with Koko began in 1972, when Koko was just 1 year old, and evolved into an extraordinary partnership, transcending the boundaries of interspecies communication and lasting, physically, until Koko’s death in 2018. Her team continues to be inspired by Koko to fulfill her legacy of conservation through communication.
We’re happy to share a recent conversation we had with Dr. Patterson. Though it’s impossible to summarize the deep impact of her work in a single interview, we touched on the early days with Koko, discussed advancements in technology, and explored the future of The Gorilla Foundation’s important work.
Why is it important to you to bring Koko’s legacy to an app?
We think it is important to share Koko’s legacy with all corners of the globe — from students in the U.S. to children in Africa, who have never heard about Koko and have no idea that gorillas are so much like humans, with the ability to communicate with us in many ways. It is this change of awareness that can save the species. An app allows us to reach them.
How did technology impact your work with Koko and promote interspecies communication through the years?
We didn’t have much technology when I started with Dr. Ron Cohn 50 years ago. I would interact with Koko, and Ron would film using whatever cameras we could afford. When these videos were shared with the public, Koko’s popularity grew very quickly.
Do you foresee any new technology that could further enhance interspecies communication — between humans and gorillas?
We think new technology can be used in many ways to help gorillas and to enhance interspecies communication. For example, putting the Koko Signs app in the hands of many opens the door for anyone to practice interspecies communication. And the more we can understand different species, the greater the likelihood we will save them. Sign language can also be an important skill for other reasons, for example as a bridge between the hearing and deaf communities.
Do you see any potential for AI to play a role in gorilla communication or the analysis of gorilla behavior?
AI could potentially help us translate gorilla natural gestures — both in captivity and in the wild. These gestures could then be compared among all the great apes to create a dictionary of gestures. A study from St. Andrews University showed that humans were able to correctly translate gestures of free-living chimpanzees and bonobos over half the time. It seems that there may be a shared gesture vocabulary across all great ape species, including humans, which AI could help us discover.
How can your work with Koko and other gorillas help expand conservation efforts for other endangered species?
Koko, by her nature, makes people care. She, along with her gorilla companions Michael and Ndume, dramatically increased interspecies empathy. To save another species, you need to care about them — I think it was Jane Goodall who said that first. And one of the quickest ways to care about another species is to communicate with them. The fact that Koko has shown us so much intelligence and emotional awareness opens the door to considering that other species may have many of these same qualities. We just don’t know, but Koko motivates us to find out. And hopefully, she will inspire others to have more respect for other species — especially those that are endangered.
What’s most exciting about The Gorilla Foundation’s upcoming work?
First is the launch of the Koko Signs app — and using it as the basis for new conservation education materials in both the US and Africa. Second, we’ll be sharing our design of the first gorilla sanctuary outside of Africa — one that is gorilla-centric and uses technology to replace in-person visits by strangers. It represents an evolution beyond zoos. The Koko Signs app could become a portal to such a sanctuary.
What legacy do you hope to leave through your work?
Koko was once asked: “What is the most important thing?” Her response (in sign language) was “Love!” I’d like young people to learn from my experience that caring for and communicating with another species is more than just an enviable career path — it is a necessary one if we care about making the future sustainable for endangered species. Koko’s most frequent message to the world was “love” (she signed “Koko-Love” often); and she inspired me to make it my message to the world as well.