A Voice for Koko the Gorilla

One of the most pleasant experiences I had while working for Alan Kay's Vivarium Program at Apple Computer was the work I did in designing and coding a softare package to allow Koko the gorilla to "have a voice". An array of on-screen buttons, each with an image hand-selected by Ron Cohn and Penny Patterson of the Gorilla Foundation, would play a sound sample of the corresponding word whenever Koko would press them. The software, called "Lingo" (before the name was coopted for MacroMedia's Director), used a file full of sound resources for the samples (typically the HyperCard stack used to gather the sound samples), and a ScrapBook full of PICTs for the images, and associated them by name. Lingo kept track of all Koko's interactions with the system, and saved each utterance, date- and time-stamped, in an archive file, for subsequent inspection, review, and linguistic analysis. Lingo also allowed the human researcher to take notes on a different screen, and saved those notes to a different, but carefully synchronized time- and date-stamped archive file. I had the great pleasure of meeting Koko, on several occasions, and had the opportunity to see her engage in conversation (via sign language) with Penny and others. These experiences left a healthy appreciation for animal intelligence, and helped formulate my thinking about how the mind works (intelligence is basically just a set of useful, adaptive behaviors) and how an Artificial Life system like PolyWorld might be able to work its way up from a computational Aplysia (sea slug) to a computational bug, mammal, and ultimately a computational human and beyond.

Of course, I had it easy... I just had to write the software. Mike Clark and Tom Ferrara had to design and build the hardware that would both expose and shelter a monitor and a Macintosh from a very large and very powerful gorilla! A recounting of some of the adventures may be found in this chapter, written for Brenda Laurel's book, The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design.