The Continuing Adventures of Alex The African Grey Parrot
November 29, 2003 12:13 PM   Subscribe

So we put a number of differently colored letters on the tray that we use, put the tray in front of Alex, and asked, ''Alex, what sound is blue?'' He answers, ''Ssss.'' It was an ''s'', so we say ''Good birdie'' and he replies, ''Want a nut.'' Well, I don't want him sitting there using our limited amount of time to eat a nut, so I tell him to wait, and I ask, ''What sound is green?'' Alex answers, ''Ssshh.'' He's right, it's ''sh,'' and we go through the routine again: ''Good parrot.'' ''Want a nut.'' ''Alex, wait. What sound is orange?'' ''ch.'' ''Good bird!'' ''Want a nut.'' We're going on and on and Alex is clearly getting more and more frustrated. He finally gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, ''Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh.'' - That Damn Bird - A Talk with Irene Pepperberg. Referential Communication with an African Gray Parrot. Irene Pepperberg says that Arthur, an African Gray parrot, is so smart that she and a group of students at the Media Lab are teaching him to go online. A more subjective take on some more African Grey parrots here. The Alex Homepage. Alex interviewed. languagehat on talking parrots.
posted by y2karl (34 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
If I were to throw up into your ear, you'd take it in a purely platonic way, right?
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 1:01 PM on November 29, 2003


*preens*
posted by quonsar at 1:21 PM on November 29, 2003


Call me when it starts solving mysteries, Encyclopedia Brown style.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:50 PM on November 29, 2003


So. Are the scientists inadvertently teaching this parrot sarcasm, or is sarcasm something inherent in all living things, and we humans are just beginning to comprehend a bird's sense of humor? I'd really like to kah enn oh wuh.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:33 PM on November 29, 2003


Awesome post, as usual, y2karl.

I'm always happy to see new evidence that our species-centrism is unfounded... This book (also from the MIT media lab) has some amazing ideas on the nature of intelligence, and how it could be the case that the only thing separating us from our animal friends is a degree or two of complexity in the old head-case.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:38 PM on November 29, 2003


Pepperberg explains that Alex occasionally uses phrases without meaning them. (From the Alex Interviewed link).

That worries me. If we only pick the results we like, we will have great results.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:58 PM on November 29, 2003


And another, from the Edge:

"For example, he sometimes will state every color but the correct one, behavior that suggests that he is carefully avoiding the right answer; statistically, he couldn't do that by chance."

Pepperberg may not be falling into the trap of Rhine-style statistical fallacies, but it sounds like it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:00 PM on November 29, 2003


This book (also from the MIT media lab) has a website as well..
posted by y2karl at 3:18 PM on November 29, 2003


I like these stories about Alex but the jury is still out for me overall.

Well, I got interested in just what the enormous debate referred to was and went looking and then got distracted. Here are the results: A Thinking Bird, or Just Another Birdbrain? led to the Unofficial Web Page about Steven Pinker as well as The language instinct (Steven Pinker) . Animal Subjectivity from the Symposium on Animal Consciousness and Psyche, from where both came, seem interesting, as does Threads from a Tangled Skein from Stephen Hart's The Animal Communication Project. And on the general topic, I will throw in Scientists Debate the Monkey Mind (Part I).
posted by y2karl at 5:01 PM on November 29, 2003


IMO, consciousness arises as a product of [neural] network complexity. Language arises as a product of consciousness complexity. I suspect both are side-effects of the complexity, not causitive effects.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:45 PM on November 29, 2003


Guess I'll go into a bit more detail. The Understanding Intelligence book's basic premise is that intelligence such as we have is the result of a kind of algorithm - a particular relationship between neural networks and perception. Our brain's connections - essentially a random mess at birth - are formed by learning based on interactions with our environment. The radical part of this claim is that this can occur with almost any type of neural network with perception, regardless of the size or shape. So our ability to engage in complex reasoning and store a large base of 'invisible' concepts is due only to a difference in brain mass and connectivity, rather than on any other evolutionary trait particular to humans. The book backs this up by proposing a long series of experiments in evolving neural networks for simple robots, and showing that they are, with a bit of learning, capable of intelligent-looking behaivior, and even of 'emergent' or unprogrammed complex behaiviors.

Now, I'm partially convinced by the book, having done a number of the experiments myself with a little robot in a lab down in Pomona, CA. I do still think, however, that the human capacity for language is probably to some extent evolved, since we've been at it for so long. I don't find it surprising that we can see the bare rudiments of language in animals, because - hey, we had to start somewhere, too, right? What Alex shows - along with phenomena like whalesong - is that animals already known to be started down the path of communication can pushed a bit further along on the road to language. One wonders what would happen if we started and kept up a breeding program to produce linguistically-capable animals... Anyone know anything about the phenomenon (real or hoax?) of apes teaching their children sign language?
posted by kaibutsu at 6:50 PM on November 29, 2003


True story*.

My mother had** a Double Yellow Headed Amazon parrot named Murphy (and relax, q - the species only has one head). Murphy was a very personable, talkative bird. His repertoire, however, ran heavily towards calling for dogs that had died several years before ("Good Dolly!" GOOD Dolly!") and repeating his own name (i.e., "parroting") in the style in which it was presented to him - hence, "Hello, Murphy! Hello Murphy ... HEL-lo Murphy! hel-LO Murphy! Hello Murphy ...", ad infinitum.

Murphy's main hangout was a big, domed, cage that Mom kept in her kitchen/dining room that he could come out and climb on top of, and slide down the bars (talking all the time - "Hello, Murphy! HEL-lo Murphy. Hel-LO Murphy!"), basically fulfilling his function as a pet in keeping Mom company. One day, Mom was doing a bit of cleaning in the room, and took a picture off the wall to clean downstairs. While she was gone, there was a nail left in the wall, and apparently it was JUST close enough to Murphy's cage for him to lean WAY out from his cage and grab ahold of it in his beak - the problem was, though, that he couldn't let go from it without falling off the cage (his flight feathers were clipped, and he knew this) so he let go of the cage top with his legs, and swung out against the wall, holding onto the nail with his beak for dear life. So, he did the only thing he could do - he called for help.

She started hearing him all the way downstairs - parrot face pressed up against the wall, legs splayed, beak tightly clenched on the nail - "eh-oh, ur-ee! EH-oh, ur-ee! eh-OH, ur-ee!"

* Which is funnier in person, where I can mime Murphy's actions and speech for you.

** Yes, Murphy is no longer with us. Mom has also decided that she cannot in good conscience keep another caged bird, since she was so upset when Murphy passed on. I'm tending to agree with her - they are smart***, and why do we think we can do whatever we want with them?


***Okay, "sentient", if that sounds better.
posted by yhbc at 7:39 PM on November 29, 2003


IMO, consciousness arises as a product of [neural] network complexity. Language arises as a product of consciousness complexity. I suspect both are side-effects of the complexity, not causitive effects.

rubbish

what selects for neural network complexity in the first place? the need for the animal to out-think its prey, predators and social competitors. consciousness is simply the ability to grasp abstract thoughts, starting with "my friend is grunting, i should investigate" and leading to "maybe i can bend that twig and do something useful with it"

eventually these abstract thoughts include social cooperation that resembles ethics, self-awareness, forgoing pleasure now for greater pleasure later, etc.
posted by mitchel at 7:48 PM on November 29, 2003


"Alex likes tall men," explains Pepperberg, indicating my companion.

Smart bird.
posted by WolfDaddy at 7:55 PM on November 29, 2003


consciousness is simply the ability to grasp abstract thoughts, starting with "my friend is grunting, i should investigate" and leading to "maybe i can bend that twig and do something useful with it"

well, it's a weird idea, but it's not impossible that we don't have to be actually conscious of those thoughts. When we've practiced something, we can do it without thinking, and it's been suggested that we could learn by copying / practicing / instinct, without needing to actually comprehend what we were doing. Plenty of philosophers or scientists have considered that to be true of animals, e.g.

I adore birds and I love language. I've linked to that site from my website before, and tend towards thinking alex has some kind of consciousness. I admit pepperburg sometimes sounds a little forgiving of any mistakes he makes, but parrots I've met have often impressed me; they really do seem smart, and exceptional parrots could well be exceptionally bright.
posted by mdn at 8:02 PM on November 29, 2003


Ant, termite, and bee colonies show signs of a collective consciousness. Any single ant, termite, or bee on its own, however, doesn't have any evident intelligence of its own: it just stumbles around at random and quickly dies.

Put a few termites together with some pellets and they do nothing useful. Put a few more termites in, and eventually you hit a critical mass phenomena in which they suddenly start building a nest using the pellets. What was disorganized, purposeless behaviour becomes organized and purposeful.

It many ways it seems that individual ants, bees, and termites are but neurons. It's only when you get a bunch of them together that you get "conscious" behaviours -- building a nest, foraging food, destroying invaders.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:23 PM on November 29, 2003


The idea that there is an abrupt terminator between the 'consciousness' that humans enjoy (well, most of them, anyway), complete with the ability for introspection and a concept of 'I' that exists through a historical duration to the present and on into a potential future, and the 'unconsciousness' of animals seems to me to be an outdated and unjustifiable one. I think there may be a continuum of sorts there though, which is only sensible.

At the same time, to propose that the speech of a parrot is indicative of an underlying 'consciousness' seems a bit of a stretch.

Just talking out my ass, as I usually do, but it seems to me that language is a tool, and where it naturally arises, arises as such, either for humans or animals. In the case of our species, the use of that tool either triggered or accompanied a massive increase in our mental capacity late in our evolution, and became more than the equivalent of levers and flails and hammers -- it became part of the actual substrate of our minds.

This, I suspect, is not the case, even with the cleverest of 'talking' mammals or birds. Or, on preview, for insect hives, either, I don't think.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:03 PM on November 29, 2003


stavros - but what would it be then.....parroting?

By the way it has also been shown that parrots have problem solving skills that would stump most humans such as picking locks (this was the best I could dig up at the moment - my archives are on my home computer) and using tools (as do the crows - see "Haunted by Pictures of tool-making crows")

At one level this story concerns animals which bend or shatter our conceptual categories - such as Loren Eisely's tree-climbing mudskippers or the pernicious mudperch:

"Climbing perch possess an accessory air-breathing organ allowing them to survive for short periods out of water. In moist conditions they can survive out of water for several days or weeks providing their air-breathing organs can be kept moist. In drier times they dig into the mud to survive. Climbing perch travel across land on their pectoral fins and may even climb trees as their name suggests. 
"


Damn animals ! why don't they just learn their proper place and stay there ?

"Ant, termite, and bee colonies show signs of a collective consciousness. Any single ant, termite, or bee on its own, however, doesn't have any evident intelligence of its own: it just stumbles around at random and quickly dies.

Put a few termites together with some pellets and they do nothing useful."
......

Well - our much ballyhooed human civilization arises from collective human behavior. Individual Homo Sapiens separated from their social matrices - their 'hives' - don't usually last very long. So we are different from ants how? - OK, we do build better stuff and concoct more elaborate behavioral routines.....

But we Metafilter males are just bowerbirds.



Languagehat - that parrot's got a pretty high metabolism, but you outweigh it by at least 10 to 1- so you should have no problem drinking the damn bird right under the table.

Just, please......wear goggles. Drunk birds can be nasty.
posted by troutfishing at 10:01 PM on November 29, 2003


A Thinking Bird, or Just Another Birdbrain? led to the Unofficial Web Page about Steven Pinker as well as The language instinct (Steven Pinker) .

In a contest between Alex and Steven Pinker, my money's on the parrot.
posted by riviera at 10:02 PM on November 29, 2003


The bird defends a court or platform where it builds a bower and spends most of its time displaying and titivating. -- from troutfishing's link : >
posted by amberglow at 10:06 PM on November 29, 2003


"maybe i can bend that twig and do something useful with it"

But if crows can already think like that, exactly where do the "abstract" thoughts differentiate from the more basic ones? Where, in other words, is that elusive line that defines a type of thinking we call "consciousness" from one that we call - for political convenience, maybe? - "unconsciousness."

At any rate, I loved the N-U-T story. Thanks, y2karl.
posted by soyjoy at 10:16 PM on November 29, 2003



Here
is another story about apparently referential behavior from Alex, this time with respect to his opinion of health food.

I agree with Language Hat that this is a long way from the kind of rant I'd expect even from one of my less articulate drinking companions. But still...
posted by myl at 10:28 PM on November 29, 2003


y2karl - I love animal language posts.

Languagehat - But if you're busy I'll be happy to pinch hit and knock back a few with the bird - Pepperburg's very protective of that walnut-sized brain, I know, but sometimes even birdbrains need to blow off some steam.

But how do we figure the drinking contest? - beer glass size gauged to body weight ? OK, the bird gets a little beer mug, but that's unfair to me - I have a much slower metabolism.....

I guess I'm just a damn liberal who wants to make everything "fair" - I should just give the parrot a 16 oz glass 'o suds and - if it's dumb enough to pick up the wager on those terms, well.......humans rule!

Now - if only we could find him a really sexy fellow parrot, he might stop chewing on things..........(sometimes I chew on things too during a fallow stretch)

amberglow - Metafilter - "More displaying and titivating than you could possibly imagine..."

Squawk!
posted by troutfishing at 10:29 PM on November 29, 2003


I loved the parrot story too.
And I think it illustrates that consciousness is perhaps just as much in the eye of the beholder as in the mind of the, erm, beholdee. Beholden?
posted by spazzm at 11:28 PM on November 29, 2003


Great post!!

This disturbs me a little, though:

From one article: "In contrast, what does a pet do? The bird sits alone in a cage all day, with ample food and water in nice accessible cups, and vegetates. Some birds in such situations pluck their feathers; they scream, they bite — they act in ways similar to those of a 4-year-old having a temper tantrum because it had been left it alone in a playpen for eight hours with maybe one toy and some snacks."

From another: "I take out my camera. Instantly, Alex puffs out his feathers--or what is left of them, given that he has pulled out most of his tail--and straightens up. I have to put the device away before he can get back to work." bold emphasis mine

I'm reminded of a three-year-old friend of ours who gets sick and tired of every adult around her asking her questions like "what color is this" and "what sound does a sheep make" and a dozen or so other inane questions that adults will only ask a small child. The problem here, I'm thinking, is not that Alex does or does not mean what he says, but rather that he simply isn't being challenged enough. After all, how would you feel if your day consisted of endless questions about color and shape and size and names of objects. For pity's sake, Dr Pepperburg, give poor Alex something more meaningful to work with, so he'll stop being so stressed that he plucks out his tailfeathers!
posted by anastasiav at 11:42 PM on November 29, 2003


anastasiav - I completely agree. BUT.....all work and no play makes Alex a dull parrot!

Alex has been tortured. All the more reason we should spice up his terribly dull life through beer, the internet, and parrot sex .

...Rawk!
posted by troutfishing at 11:52 PM on November 29, 2003


I don't know if this is simply coincidence, but this was on Radio Four yesterday.
posted by johnny novak at 1:33 AM on November 30, 2003


anastasiav, exactly. I have seen pictures of alex that showed he had plucked his chest also. I suspect all of the pictures in these articles are older pictures. Not a happy bird.
posted by free pie at 9:10 AM on November 30, 2003


I think it was insinuated that Alex's plucking happens when Irene's gone for a few days, leaving him heartbroken.

What do wish to define as "language"? When a squirrel chatters at you as you walk through its territory, there's no doubt that it's telling you off, and alerting everyone in the area of your presence. There's a message in that chatter: does that make it language?

What of moth pheromones? The female moth releases her sex scent and is swarmed by males from miles away. The pheromones are a message: "Come and have sex with me, boys!" Is it a language of scent?

I think that, like consciousness, there is a continuum of language. Moths have a moth consciousness and moth language. Dolphins have dolphin consciousness and dolphin language.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:10 AM on November 30, 2003


I think it was insinuated that Alex's plucking happens when Irene's gone for a few days, leaving him heartbroken.

Years ago I saw a PBS special about Alex. When Irene would leave for the night, poor Alex would call out to her "I love you!" in an effort to make her stay.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:08 PM on November 30, 2003


Just, please......wear goggles. Drunk birds can be nasty.

Too late. Fortunately, I didn't lose the eye, but it was an unpleasant experience.

On the plus side, the bird was an easy mark for every sucker bet in the book, and I cleaned him out! Also, they're not going to let him back in the bar, so I don't have to worry about him coming back and taking revenge.

I'm still not sure about the language thing, though. It was pretty drunk in there. He could have been faking it.
posted by languagehat at 1:46 PM on November 30, 2003


languagehat - yup, I thought so. Parrots are always easy marks. They think they're just so damn smart, with all those smarmy comments - "Rawk! - give the bird a beer. Rawkk! Come on buddy! Rawk" - they never see it coming.

Unfortunately birds never carry much dough either. They don't have pockets. Alex goes out on Pepperburg's credit card sometimes. She wonders where it all goes, but she's not very god with details and brushes it off. One day, though, she'll figure out that the parrot is up to no damn good.
posted by troutfishing at 2:08 PM on November 30, 2003


I think it was insinuated that Alex's plucking happens when Irene's gone for a few days, leaving him heartbroken.

Yup, the fastest way to make an AG miserable enough to start mutilating itself is to leave it alone, with a caretaker, all weekend, every weekend.

Where's PETA when you need them?
posted by free pie at 5:32 PM on November 30, 2003


This thread would not be complete without reference to the well-known joke about the parrot with a prehensile penis.
posted by beagle at 5:34 AM on December 1, 2003


« Older The FDA has put the brakes on clinical trials of a...  |  Sure, you all know Barberella ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments