10. NIM CHIMPSKY: SIGNS OF COMMUNICATION?
Is communication the capacity to use symbols to refer to objects and states or is it the capacity to use these symbols in an order that creates meaning? "Eat Nim" and "Nim eat" mean very different things but were used interchangeably by Nim Chimpsky the chimpanzee.
Named after the linguist Noam Chomsky (who believes that only humans are wired to learn language), Nim's upbringing was a continuation of studies into the degree to which apes can utilise sign language. Through lessons in a formal environment, he quickly learnt 125 words and was able to form them into dubious sentences such as "Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you."  Such ungrammatical behaviour prompted the researchers to conclude that the project had failed.
Nim may not have mastered syntax but he was certainly able to communicate, a word which has its origins in the Latin for 'to share'. In the year and three months that I've worked at CPLS, every bit of work I've done has been about communication - in other words, about sharing. Sharing the latest research insights from TNO with a wider audience via a Dutch-English translation. Helping somebody to share their sincere thanks to colleagues by proofreading a valedictory speech. Perhaps most directly of all, conducting face-to-face or phone interviews with scientists, academics and policymakers about their projects and sharing the results in articles and leaflets.
I sometimes feel like Nim when I listen back to my interviews. Like a chimp trying to work out the best way to get an orange with only a limited vocabulary, I'm regularly faced with summarising years of research, development and dissemination into 1000 words or less. Much of the terminology - from applications like AutoCAD to concepts like Industry4.0 - was new to me at the start, and I still learn at least a few phrases per interview. On a personal level, it's the area in which I feel that I've grown the most, learning to become more proactive while speaking and to be flexible under changing circumstances. More of a back and forth and less of a 'give information me information article write' approach.
It's the sharing nature of communication that has made this possible: when asked to reveal what they feel most proud of or what they think best illustrates their project's successes, interviewees almost always express a passion and enthusiasm which is hard not to share. I do believe that this passion, if communicated properly by the writer, is what makes for the best final text - something which is particularly pertinent given that these projects must convince thousands of individuals that society has a lot to gain through new approaches to sustainability, healthcare, industry and more. If somebody opens up on what made them want to be a part of these changes, it doesn't really matter how many obscure, technical terms I need to look up. The 'heart' of the story tends to reveal itself either way.
As for Nim, he didn't live long enough to take part in a more unusual technological innovation. Co-founded in 2003 by the musician Peter Gabriel (of all people), ApeNet aimed to connect non-human primates through video conferences in order to practise their sign language together.  A lack of funding stopped the calls from ever taking place, but perhaps it would have been a good way for these apes to discover new passions as well.