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Who Took Part in the First Interspecies Online Chat?

Margaret Lipman
Published Jul 04, 2024
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Arguably the world’s most famous gorilla, the female western lowland gorilla known as “Koko” was born on July 4, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo. Among her many claims to fame, Koko was a participant in the first online interspecies chat, facilitated by America Online (AOL) in 1998.

Koko, whose real name was Hanabiko (“Fireworks Child” in Japanese), was only a year old when she began working with Francine “Penny” Patterson, then a Stanford PhD candidate studying gorilla linguistic capabilities. According to Patterson, Koko would come to understand approximately 2,000 spoken English words in addition to 1,000 modified signs based on American Sign Language.

In 1976, Dr. Patterson co-founded the Gorilla Foundation with the aim of conducting further language and behavior studies. Koko would spend most of her life at the Gorilla Foundation premises in Woodside, California, near Patterson’s home, initially gaining fame after a 1978 National Geographic cover featuring a photograph that Koko took of herself in a mirror. One of the best-known episodes in Koko’s fascinating life was her relationship with a tiny kitten known as All Ball, whom she “adopted” in 1984. The nurturing image of the large gorilla caring for the helpless kitten became the basis for a National Geographic cover, a children’s book, and a video production.

Koko was already world-famous by the time she became an internet pioneer, so to speak. On April 27, 1998, 26-year-old Koko participated in what is recognized by Guinness World Records as the “first inter-species web chat.” The event, exclusive to AOL subscribers, attracted around 8,000 people, who had the opportunity to send questions to the gorilla. A phone conversation took place between the AOL moderator and Dr. Patterson, with the moderator relaying selected questions to Dr. Patterson, who would then sign them to Koko and translate the gorilla’s signed responses. A typist transcribed those responses for the benefit of the chat participants.

As was noted at the time, the conversation, which lasted just over 40 minutes, didn’t always flow smoothly, and Koko’s answers didn’t always match up with what was being asked. Many of the questions were also too abstract or conceptual for Koko to properly understand, such as which of her paintings she likes most, whether it was hard to learn sign language, what place she’d like to visit, and whether she dreams.

Yet she was able to answer many others, such as whether she feels happy (she responded “fine”), what she’d like for her birthday (“food and smoke,” though smoke probably referred to her kitten at the time, Smokey), what animal she’d like as a friend (“dog”), and what her favorite drink is (“apple drink”). What was clear from the chat transcript is that Dr. Patterson understood many of the nuances of Koko’s signs, facial expressions, movements, and vocalizations that didn’t translate well into the online chat format, though admittedly there were quite a few responses left open to interpretation.

For example, one interaction went like this:

Host: Do you like to chat with other people? That was from Rulucky!

DrPPatrsn: Koko, do you like to talk to people?

LiveKOKO: Fine nipple.

DrPPatrsn: Yes, that was her answer. 'Nipple' rhymes with 'people,' OK? She doesn't sign people per se, so she may be trying to do a 'sounds like...' but she indicated it was 'fine.’

Keeping up with Koko:

  • A second AOL webcast with Koko in November 2000 underlined the ever-expanding commercial possibilities of the Internet, with chat participants encouraged to visit an online store selling Koko merchandise to raise money for the Gorilla Foundation. She would eventually get her own Facebook page, YouTube channel, and Twitter account.

  • Koko counted numerous celebrities among her "friends" and admirers, including Mr. Rogers, Betty White, and Robin Williams.

  • Patterson’s work with Koko was heavily scrutinized, with primatologists disagreeing about the extent of Koko’s language competency. While most agreed that she had a good understanding of some nouns, verbs, adjectives, and even a few abstract concepts, she did not use syntax or grammar, and much of her linguistic output was based solely on Patterson’s translations, which often served to anthropomorphize the gorilla.

  • Koko passed away in her sleep at the Gorilla Foundation in June 2018, at age 46. Tomorrow (July 4, 2024) would be her 53rd birthday.

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Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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