This month in tech history: Koko the gorilla

27 April 1998 – Koko the gorilla chats on AOL


Koko is a lowland gorilla who took part in the first (and I think only – if you know of another, let me know in the comments) live, interspecies internet chat. Koko has lived in captivity all her life, and was taught a variant of American Sign Language by her trainer, Penny Patterson.

Koko was born at the San Francisco Zoo, and originally only loaned to Patterson for her doctoral research. Koko has stayed with Patterson ever since, supported by The Gorilla Foundation, and lives in California. However, The Gorilla Foundation is hoping to open a new facility – The Maui Great Ape Sanctuary - in Maui, Hawaii, where Koko and other captive gorillas can live in a ‘safe, natural habitat’.

Using AOL chat and a sign language interpreter Koko answered questions put to her by AOL audience members. Around 8,000 AOL subscribers tuned in to the chat, which lasted 41 minutes. As the transcript shows, Koko’s responses were a bit vague, and not everyone was impressed, with some raising suspicions that with Patterson interpreting, there was no proof that Koko was truly capable of understanding what was asked. According to Koko.org, Koko understands approximately 2,000 words in English. This site offers an analysis of Koko’s signed words using the CLAN program from CHILDES which analyses child language data, revealing a Mean length of utterance (MLU). Koko’s MLU is 1.9 – roughly the equivalent of that expected from a 22-month-old human child.

Koko’s responses varied from reasonable requests like “food and smoke” when asked what she wanted for her birthday – assuming that Patterson’s explanation that “smoke” referred to Koko’s kitten, Smokey; to the humorous, responding with “Bad. Toilet.” to the question, “What do you think of Ndume?” (her mate); to the potentially worrying, in light of a sexual harassment case brought against The Gorilla Foundation in the mid-2000s - Koko was asked if she likes to chat with people, “Fine nipple,” Koko signed in response.

AOL once again hosted Koko in November 2000 hoping to raise money for the gorilla’s move to Maui. Koko has also had a computer since the late 1980s – Apple gave her a Macintosh to use as part of a study aimed at developing simpler devices with touch-screen technology.



Find out more about The Gorilla Foundation at their website.

You can find the full transcript of the first AOL chat with Koko here and the second here.

This article analyses the research in Koko and another ‘talking’ ape, Kanzi the bonobo.


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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Editor of IDG Connect

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