Dr. Ken Schweller: Of Apes and Apps

To a human with a good grasp of English, words may appear simple. However, trying to understand their – or any other set of words’ – meaning requires deciphering ambiguity and implication.

“A naïve person who looks at language thinks the words are what they are,” says Dr. Ken Schweller dually appointed professor of psychology and computer science at Buena Vista University. “Let’s take another sentence – ‘I saw a red ball’. Could it mean I cut a red-colored round object? Operated on an inflamed testicle? Observed a Communist crying?”

Schweller’s graduate school experiments with how people understand language led him to seek the answer through computers, and through computers to help Des Moines’ Great Ape Trust — the world’s foremost ape language research institution — explore the boundaries of the animals’ ability to comprehend human speech. He began working with the Trust as a programmer and now serves as Chair of the Board of Directors.

Schweller got involved with the Trust when – during his seven-year run as Dean of BVU’s School of Science – he invited primatologist Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh to speak at the 2004 dedication of the Estelle Siebens Science Center building. Her research drove the founding of the Trust. As Senior Scientist and Executive Director she spends most of her day with the apes in what the Trust describes as a “pan-Homo” culture – that is, humans and apes living together. In 2011, she was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” for her research.

 “Like me, she’s a cognitive psychologist also interested in artificial intelligence,” says Schweller. “After she spoke at BVU, I asked if there was anything I could do for the Trust. The first programs I built were Pac Man-type mazes. Today, I’m the head programmer there.” 

Schweller’s touch-screen keyboard is programmed to display up to 600 lexigrams that the apes associate with English words, based on a mechanical version originally developed by Savage-Rumbaugh’s research associate and ex-husband, Dr. Duane Rumbaugh. Schweller designed the keyboard and worked on many software projects on a Fall 2010 sabbatical, during which he volunteered at the Trust. 

Rumbaugh’s original symbols were displayed by a projector through a series of lenses that could be combined to make shapes, their designs constrained by the technology. As it became apparent that apes understood the symbols – and as the need for a larger vocabulary grew – more symbols were added, some abstract and others that had visual suggestions like pictograms or Chinese characters. Changes in the third generation of lexigrams – which incorporate English words in Roman letters into the design – were implemented largely to make comprehension easier for humans working with the apes, as was the fourth generation (largely Schweller’s contribution) that uses a combination of letters and colors which humans can read as letters and the apes understand as symbols. 

Schweller has used his work with the Trust to involve BVU students in a variety of ways, including the creation of “Robo Bonobo,” a robotic ape the Trust’s flesh-and-blood hominids can control to interact with visitors.

His involvement with the Trust is a natural extension of a career that began searching for answers to questions of cognition via computers. Schweller earned an undergraduate degree in 1968 in English as a National Merit Scholar at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., after switching from biology. During his junior and senior years he worked at a camp for emotionally disturbed children run by the Boston Children’s Service, which reaffirmed his growing interest in psychology and human development. While in graduate school he shifted toward the more theoretical aspects of psychology – especially questions of how children acquire language, which he chose to address via computers. 

“Psychology switched from a behaviorist to a cognitive paradigm, thinking of the brain as an analogue to a computer,” he says. “There were no PhD programs in computer science then. People came to computers from other disciplines, frequently math and engineering.”

When he and his wife, Dr. Jeanne Tinsley, BVU professor of psychology, started at BVU, they shared the teaching load for a single psychology position. A few years later, Dr. Charles Slagle, Class of 1960, professor emeritus of chemistry, purchased BVU’s first computer. Schweller was among those to begin teaching computers. He learned as he went, and throughout the 1980s when his work load gradually shifted from psychology to computer science.

“I know over 30 languages, and I assume I’ll learn a dozen more,” he says, quantifying a small bit of how far he – and computers – have come.