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Hacker, inventor, and former Microsoft Program Manager trains crows to do his bidding.
March 5, 2008 12:36 AM   Subscribe

Josh Klein is a novelist, hacker, and inventor whose Crow Vending Machine trains crows to pick coins off the ground in exchange for peanuts using Skinnerian training principles. Previously. So far, he's only succeeded with trained crows and banded crows, but he hopes to teach wild crows to use the device and collect some of the $215,000,000 in change lost in the United States each year.

That, or he'd like the crows to learn how to take part in Search & Rescue operations, or maybe locate criminals, or pick up garbage. Josh has lots of ideas. Also, crows are pretty cool! Researchers at Cambridge think they are as smart as primates.
posted by arnicae (48 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
mo' money in training them to swipe womens' purses, or iPhones.
posted by panamax at 12:58 AM on March 5, 2008


Net result: homeless people kill the crows.
Alternate possibility: crows realize they are getting ripped off, use their newfound understanding of currency to buy the peanuts from retailers with better prices.
posted by agentofselection at 1:25 AM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


The last link strikes me as a bit misleading. I've read elsewhere that crows and non human primates have similar brain/body mass ratios, and this article uses the same premise to imply that the crow's brain is "relatively the same size as the chimpanzee," without stressing the relativity of the comparison. Crows don't have the same sized brains, but they are incredibly clever and share with chimpanzees, and humans, a very big brain for their body. A minor difference, to say the least. And I don't mean to hate- I, for one, welcome our new money-loving crow overlords.
posted by farishta at 1:57 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have always wondered how much money is on the ground at any one time. 215 million is a lot to lose each year.
posted by wolfewarrior at 2:00 AM on March 5, 2008


Ok, I take it back, Klein claims that they are better than chimps at inductive and deductive logic. That hurts my primate pride.
posted by farishta at 2:02 AM on March 5, 2008


mo' money in training them to swipe womens' purses

I just hope they don't work that out for themselves.
posted by Phanx at 2:08 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


@farishta- Also, crows can count. Maybe as high as 16. And they have complex and articulated social networks and can hold grudges for years. I think you're right to be scared.

@wolfewarrior- Klein claims its $215 million but I couldn't find any other links to back that up-

Also, he seems to be the only person who refers to operant condition as Skinnerian training principles. Conceited any?
posted by arnicae at 2:15 AM on March 5, 2008


Alfred Hitchcock's Birds comes to mind, especially after "we can train them to... identify specific individuals and track them down" (from the video).
posted by WalterMitty at 2:49 AM on March 5, 2008


Fuck this is a cool ideal. Like something out of an Ian M. Banks novel.
posted by orthogonality at 3:44 AM on March 5, 2008


But what's the exchange rate between coins and peanuts? One coin, one peanut? Or is the value of the coin meaningful? I can see problems in trying to teach a crow that one shiny disc is worth one peanut but another is worth ten. But if you don't do that, then it'll cost more peanuts to retrieve less money.
posted by talitha_kumi at 4:05 AM on March 5, 2008


Just be thankful he's not teaching them to fetch eyeglasses.
posted by popechunk at 4:28 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


I read that entire thing as "cows" at first. I would love to see roam cows picking up loose change (with their lips I guess and then they could sort it into their famous four stomachs).
posted by DU at 4:28 AM on March 5, 2008 [4 favorites]


I keep reposting this because it amazes me so much. Check out this video about crows using traffic to crack nuts.

As I say each time... I know CHILDREN that wouldn't be able to figure this out.
posted by Malor at 4:35 AM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


"I can see problems in trying to teach a crow that one shiny disc is worth one peanut but another is worth ten."

Not at all. If the crows are able to distinguish coins, and you reward them according to the type of coin, they will have no trouble learning that the big silvery shiny disc gets them more peanuts than the small brownish dull disc.

I had a ferret that just HAD to obsessively open every zipper, button or velcro closure it found. If anyone left their purse on the floor, they would come back to find the contents of their wallet spread on the floor. If one could train rats to do this, you can add the millions that people carry in their wallets to the millions on the floor. Now, what typical urban pest has the ability to break car windows?
posted by Dr. Curare at 5:10 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


As I say each time... I know CHILDREN that wouldn't be able to figure this out.
Or maybe they just don't want to eat a nut that's been run over by a car tire.
posted by IronLizard at 5:43 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


I know I've said something like this before, but I hope his experiment is well received, because all it would take is a group of investors laughing at him at a trade show or something to drive him underground; " 'Mad' they call me? 'Foolish Crow man' they said, well we'll see who laughs last, WON'T WE my children?!" *CAW CAW CAW*

And as a massive... murder of crows swoops out from the shadows, darkening the city streets, the Bat signal lights up the sky...
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 5:49 AM on March 5, 2008 [14 favorites]


Dammit, I've found $2.13 on the ground since January 1st, and I am not having these crows move in on my cut. These are my post-graduate-studies savings we're talkin' about, here.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 5:57 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Here in Tokyo crows are a big problem. A crow stole my wife's wallet once: flew away (in the park) with the wallet in its beak, but dropped it just a little later and she was able to retrieve the wallet. Then a few months back I was in Ueno park, sitting on a low stone wall: had a slice of pizza that I put down right beside me, laid on a plastic bag for just a second, so I could grab some napkins or something, and there was a crow right there, instantly, who was ready to grab that slice. Would've too, but I was too quick for him. Ain't no gaddam crow gonna get my pizza, dammit! I tell you, though, sometimes it really does look like a scene from The Birds here. It's out of control.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:05 AM on March 5, 2008


What's next, training cockroaches to collect crumbs so he can rebuild Twinkies and sell them to school disctricts?
posted by tommasz at 6:06 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


As I say each time... I know CHILDREN that wouldn't be able to figure this out.

Oh i don't know. Hereabouts there are kids that use stones and overpasses to crack open cars and trains
posted by srboisvert at 6:08 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


That crow/nut/traffic thing was incredible. Although I wonder how much of that was the work of editors.

I have a made an entry in my Projects To Do Someday list: "Train crows to do my bidding"
posted by DU at 6:09 AM on March 5, 2008


How discerning will the crows be? What about sparkly pendants, earrings... *shudder*... dazzling round eyes?
posted by RokkitNite at 6:20 AM on March 5, 2008


Um, yeah... where I live, there's a major roost of crows, to the point where the crow population can outnumber the human population (approx 45,000) by more than 4:1. I'm thinking that once they picked the ground clean of change, they'd step it up to B&E's and knocking over banks.
posted by Zinger at 6:23 AM on March 5, 2008


How discerning will the crows be?

As discerning as they are trained to be. Human vending machines can already distinguish coins from detritus, so this is not an unsolvable problem. (Although part of the system is the tininess of the slot on the front, which a crow might not be able to navigate.)
posted by DU at 6:27 AM on March 5, 2008


@farishta- You stole my line... I wanted to be the first to welcome our new money-loving crow overlords!!! Now I will surely end up in some futuristic crow run prison camp... THANKS A LOT!
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:42 AM on March 5, 2008


How far is it from picking up coins in NYC to pecking out little GOP chads in Ohio? That explains a lot about McCain's obviously pro-crow agenda.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:48 AM on March 5, 2008


Dude should take up homebrewing. I've got millions of organisms right now devoting their whole lives to getting me drunk.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:03 AM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


StupidSexyFLanders : That explains a lot about McCain's obviously pro-crow agenda.

If he's paying them off then I guess it would be kind of a quid pro crow arrangement.
posted by Drexen at 7:18 AM on March 5, 2008 [7 favorites]


As of last night, McCain is the GCrowP candidate.
posted by DU at 7:21 AM on March 5, 2008


Smarter to train some fish to drop coins in a net. Then you can set them loose on wishing wells and fountains all across this great land and reap a fortune.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:27 AM on March 5, 2008


If you've got a net, why do you need the fish?

As you might tell from my increasing involvement in this thread, I am completely sold on this idea. I can't wait to build my own.
posted by DU at 7:33 AM on March 5, 2008


That is great; I have all sorts of crows around my house, so I look forward to training them to do this sort of thing. I especially like the picture of the 2 crows using the machine wlie a flock of seagulls wanders aimlessly around

Stupid seagulls!
posted by TedW at 7:41 AM on March 5, 2008


It gets dark around here early
Because of all the crows
What they want and where they came from
No one really knows
Crows are sour and surly
With reason, I suppose

There are crows, crows in the trees
Saying crows things, doing as they please

-- The Gothic Archies know the score.
posted by patricio at 7:49 AM on March 5, 2008


"Train crows to do my bidding" --DU

It's moving fast, against the wind.
Crebain from Dunland!
Hide!
posted by Bugg at 7:58 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Counting Crows jokes in the gizmodo thread are awesome/painful.
posted by tarheelcoxn at 8:50 AM on March 5, 2008


Now, what typical urban pest has the ability to break car windows?

I think your best bet is to train the raccoons to use a slim jim.
posted by sfenders at 9:53 AM on March 5, 2008


Please leave our living circle.
posted by lazymonster at 10:01 AM on March 5, 2008


Is it wrong that my first thought for using these was more malicious?

It'll be interesting to see how successful he is with this.
I could see him cashing out after his first few million to buy a decrepit lighthouse on the remote coast of Maine and breeding an army of obedient crows to do his bidding, making Stephen King cry from not having thought of it first.

The one Crow I've seen up close repeatedly (in a pet store years ago) was exceedingly smart which, combined with its striking beauty made me an instant fan. I'd hang out in the store to try and get a handle on all the phrases/calls it knew, and what would prompt each. It greeted me with a harpo whistle before long, every time I'd come into the store. The girls got cat calls, all of them. Especially if they bent over. The bird became a hero to my adolescent self.
posted by Busithoth at 10:08 AM on March 5, 2008


Crows: We Want to Be Your Only Bird.
posted by ga$money at 10:18 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Make that two dollars and fourteen cents.

Eat that, crows. The six never sleeps!
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 11:06 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Many towns are being overrun by crows in the winter.
posted by humanfont at 12:23 PM on March 5, 2008


Teams of crows always enjoy high morale. They call it esprit de caw.
posted by SPrintF at 12:51 PM on March 5, 2008


In Canada (where denominations up to 2 dollars are coins), this could be very, very lucrative.

This is one of those few ideas that I really, really wish I had thought of first.
posted by bumpkin at 1:16 PM on March 5, 2008


I once had a plan to train the feral parakeets around the University of Chicago to verbally abuse the theoretical foundations of several different disciplines:

"The invisible hand of the economy is 18th century mysticism!" *squak*

"Dialectical materialism is built around a teleological view of history!" *rawrk*

"Ideal types are neither ideal nor typical! Pretty boy!"

(They laughed at me at the Academy)
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:25 PM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Crow Jane
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:39 PM on March 5, 2008


And then the crows train other crows. Hm. If we could train the first crows to distribute boxes and take a cut, we could have a crow MLM scheme. Except that they're probably too smart to fall for MLM.
posted by ctmf at 6:20 PM on March 5, 2008


Also, crows can count. Maybe as high as 16. And they have complex and articulated social networks and can hold grudges for years. I think you're right to be scared.

Hell, once they collect five dollars, all of MeFi should be scared.
posted by rokusan at 8:00 PM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Combine your crows with birds stealing coins from a coin-op car wash and you could really make a killing.
posted by Mitheral at 7:51 PM on March 6, 2008


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