Animal minds Intelligent Design

Animal intelligence: Cockatoo cracks lock unassisted

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From news writer Denyse O’Leary:

Here’s a new one for animal intelligence, from New Scientist:

Five birds were successful after some guidance, or with practice, but one of the cockatoos – called Pipin – broke in unassisted in under 2 hours. It was also the only bird to remove the screw with its foot instead of its beak.

To test whether the birds had simply memorised a sequence of tasks, or whether they had a physical understanding of each device, the team altered the set-up by breaking, removing or re-ordering some of the locks, as shown in the video.

This did not stump the birds, suggesting that they are aware of how objects act on each other, says Kacelnik. It also shows that the parrots do not need to be rewarded every step of the way to solve a problem.

This is significant, particularly because birds’ brains are not even organized the same way as mammalian brains. So clearly, intelligence (seen as problem-solving ability) does not depend on brain organization.

With birds, as with molluscs, some are smart in a sense that humans can understand (like that cockatoo) and some seem to have a brain only because it is part of the package. We really do not yet know what the drivers and related conditions are for why one life form will become quite intelligent and a related life form will not. That is worthy of serious study.

A significant fact about the lock-breaking cockatoos is that they understand the relationship between their actions and an outcome several steps down the road.

A group of us were once installing a cat door in a basement door, to keep cats off the main floor when meals were being prepared (but not otherwise). One enterprising cat, who was sticking his paws under the door, suddenly drove his paw through the plastic window of the locked cat door and accidentally released the catch. At first, we thought our efforts had failed. Then we realized, no. He didn’t realize what exactly he had done. Therefore, he is unlikely to do it again, except by accident. And he probably still won’t realize what he has done even then.

This turned out to be true. He never did “get” the way in which he had released the catch. So he never tried it again.

The cockatoo experiment design rules out such factors as these – the bird trying anything and everything and just getting lucky without learning a correct routine. Thus it provides a useful way of assessing problem-solving intelligence.

Hee’s an unrelated vid of a cockatoo opening a lock on a cage door from the inside:

See also: More insights into how smart birds solve problems

There is no tree of intelligence

Are vertebrates really smarter than invertebrates?

6 Replies to “Animal intelligence: Cockatoo cracks lock unassisted

  1. 1
    keiths says:

    Denyse O’Leary:

    This is significant, particularly because birds’ brains are not even organized the same way as mammalian brains. So clearly, intelligence (seen as problem-solving ability) does not depend on brain organization.

    Not quite. Intelligence still depends on brain organization, but it doesn’t depend on mammalian brain organization. Other styles of organization yield intelligence, as birds and cephalopods show.

    If onlookers think I’m being picky, keep in mind that Denyse believes in an immaterial mind separate from the brain, at least in humans. I’m not sure what she thinks about other animals.

  2. 2
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Denyse,

    This is an extremely interesting report. I’m still unpersuaded however that the cockatoos’ behavior qualifies as intelligent in the true sense of the word. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

    (a) The vast majority of the birds required guidance. “Five birds were successful after some guidance, or with practice, but one of the cockatoos – called Pipin – broke in unassisted in under 2 hours.”

    (b) The one that didn’t require guidance still took two hours to finish the job;

    (c) Trial and error alone may not be sufficient to explain what the cockatoo did, but how about a combination of three unintelligent mechanisms, none of which require insight on the bird’s part: (i) trial and error beak movements in a novel situation; (ii) memory of techniques that worked in previous similar situations; and (iii) instant feedback via touch of objects giving way in response to being pushed in a certain way? I’d bet that those three techniques would suffice to explain what the bird did, given that it took two hours to do the job;

    (d) There was no control testing of human beings solving a similar task, to see how long they took, and whether they used a more efficient procedure for opening the locks;

    (e) Could a robot be designed that could do the same thing, without training? I’ll bet it could;

    (f) Normally we require a person who has accomplished an intelligent feat to explain how he/she did it, and why he/she did it that way. If the person can’t do that, then we usually don’t refer to that person’s feat as intelligent, but merely intuitive. For instance: one trick I can do is fast mental calculations, but I can always go back and explain how I did them and why I did them that way. I’m not super-fast; someone with a really good auditory memory could calculate a lot faster than I can. However, I’ve read that there are some super-fast people who just “hear the answer” inside their heads but who can’t say where it comes from. Should we call their calculations intelligent? I think not;

    (g) More generally, can we speak of true intelligence in the absence of language? It might seem so: lots of good mathematicians engage in picture thinking and hate to “show workings.” But even they still need to use some words to explain what they’re getting at, and I’m not persuaded that they could do their work without any language at all;

    (h) In response to KeithS’s comment about the mind being immaterial: well, it has to be, whether materialists like it or not. A material system is by definition incapable of generating a purely formal concept like “true,” “false,” “reality,” “prime” or even “probable.” Why? Because material properties such as speed, temperature etc. are in a different category from formal concepts. It’s a category mistake to explain the latter in terms of the former: it’s like trying to explain humor in terms of color. You wouldn’t even try to do that: you can see immediately that it won’t work: the enterprise is domed from the start. Ditto for the attempt to explain formal concepts in terms of material ones. But material objects are by definition entities, all of whose properties (and behavior) can be characterized in physicalistic, spatio-temporal terms. So whatever we are, we’re not material objects. At least some of our properties transcend the material. Do animals also transcend the material to some degree? I’d be happy to allow that they might, but I wouldn’t appeal to feats such as these to prove my case. I’d be more impressed with the fact that they are capable of genuine (non-opportunistic) friendship, as many pet-owners will attest. That suggests that they have a primitive concept of a significant “other,” which resists explanation in simple materialistic terms. Unlike us, though, pets can’t talk about what they mean by this concept. And therein lies one vital difference between us.

  3. 3
    keiths says:

    Hi VJ,

    (h) In response to KeithS’s comment about the mind being immaterial: well, it has to be, whether materialists like it or not. A material system is by definition incapable of generating a purely formal concept like “true,” “false,” “reality,” “prime” or even “probable.”

    I disagree, of course, and I would enjoy discussing this with you, but I am reluctant to derail Denyse’s thread.

    Perhaps you could start a thread on this topic when you have some free time.

  4. 4
    RDFish says:

    The one that didn’t require guidance still took two hours to finish the job;

    Oh, so time to complete a task is an indicator of “true intelligence”? What would you say about an intelligent agent who took billions of years to create something? 😉

  5. 5
    Robert Byers says:

    its still just their memory being used. They simply remember bigger ideas about moving things aside to get what they want.
    Building a birds nest is done this way.
    They just have bird brains. But have , peraps, human memory capability.

  6. 6
    Brett says:

    Until the cockatiel can recall and celebrate the cracking of the lock with friends over a glass of merlot a decade hence describing how they felt about the ethics of breaking the lock, ostensibly to gain access to something that didn’t belong to it, ponder the value of the object locked up and why the owner wanted to lock it up, revel at the design and manufacture of the lock, or even better ,conceptualize an improvement to the lock that would improve its resistance to being cracked AND manufacture it, then the bird will have merely mastered an algorithm no more or less worthy of admiration than its ability to fly or build a nest or rear its young. A dog catching a frisbee has mastered an algorithm involving projectile and ballistic motion involving mass, momentum, position, velocity, and acceleration and wind speed on par with the best intercept missiles, but it can not explain why it catches the frisbee or speculate why we humans throw them and grin from ear to ear when the catch it and return it full of slobber.

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