Intelligent Design

How clever is that cockatoo?

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Denyse O’Leary has put up a fascinating post about a cockatoo (a Tanimbar corella, Cacatua goffiniana, like the one pictured above) that can crack locks unassisted, without having to be offered a reward at each step along the way. This raises the interesting question of whether the bird’s behavior can properly be described as intelligent. Here’s a brief excerpt from the report by Sandrine Ceurstemont (3 July 2013) in New Scientist magazine:

Alex Kacelnik and colleagues at the University of Oxford set a number of cockatoos a challenge: pick a lock to access a nut visible behind a transparent door. The birds had to remove a pin, followed by a screw and a bolt, before turning a wheel to release a latch (see video, above).

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.

At first blush, this experiment appears to address the traditional objections. The bird wasn’t being rewarded; it learned from its experience; it used what it had learned in a creative fashion on subsequent occasions. Surely that deserves to be called intelligent behavior, right? Not so fast.

I posted the following critical remarks in a comment on Denyse’s post, but in response to a suggestion from KeithS, I have put them on a new post. Readers are welcome to weigh in with their own opinions.

Here are my reasons for skepticism:

(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 a repertoire 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 doomed 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.

What do you think? Over to you.

20 Replies to “How clever is that cockatoo?

  1. 1
    Neil Rickert says:

    Trial and error alone may not be sufficient to explain what the cockatoo did, but how about a combination of three unintelligent mechanisms, …

    The ability to use trial and error already demonstrates some kind of intelligence. It’s not as if this were a mechanical computer following our rules as to what we designate as error. If the cockatoo is using trial and error, then it already has some autonomous way of distinguishing between success and error.

    It would be nice if ID proponents would clearly and precisely define what they mean by “intelligence.”

  2. 2
    Neil Rickert says:

    Because material properties such as speed, temperature etc. are in a different category from formal concepts.

    In what way are they different? I’m not at all sure what it even means to say that speed is a material property, given its dependence on the inertial frame in which it is being measured.

  3. 3
    RDFish says:

    Hi Neil,

    The ability to use trial and error already demonstrates some kind of intelligence.

    That depends on how you define “intelligence”.

    It’s not as if this were a mechanical computer following our rules as to what we designate as error.

    And what if it was? Would that mean the computer was not intelligent?

    If the cockatoo is using trial and error, then it already has some autonomous way of distinguishing between success and error.

    How do you know it is any more autonomous than a computer’s goals would be? Maybe the Intelligent Designer gave the cockatoo its goals… and ours!

    It would be nice if ID proponents would clearly and precisely define what they mean by “intelligence.”

    Now there is a good suggestion!

    Cheers,
    aiguy

  4. 4
    JDH says:

    This reminds me of why I always go back and read the original research. The write up by the science press usually hides the holes in the argument. I am naturally skeptical of claims that crows think about what is not there, that orangutans count, that cockatoos pick locks through physical understanding of the device… I always bear in mind that the people actually doing these experiments are biased in three ways…

    1. Being committed to their own brilliance, they want to believe that they ( the experimenters ) are clever enough to set up all the necessary controls to prove animals use the same kind of intelligence as humans.
    2. Being committed to evolution and against intelligent design, they really want animal intelligence to be qualitatively ( but not quantitatively ) the same as human intelligence. In other words, they want there to be a continuum of gradual increase in intelligence from the animal world to the human world.

    3. Being committed to their scientific careers, they want to believe they just created a game-changing experiment with game-changing results.

    These biases usually produce overhyped results which in the end do not do what they purport to do, and we are left with the same conundrum. No natural process explains the ability of human beings to think in abstract concepts, and how human beings’ thoughts and verbal communication about these abstract concepts actually change physical, materially observed events.

    The thinking of human beings is on a qualitatively different plain from that of the animal world. When we observe the first animal that really does human like thinking, then I will have to revise my viewpoint. Until then I think my skepticism about these experiments has served me well.

  5. 5
    Robert Byers says:

    I agree that two hours means the birds are using the ordinary tricks they use in nature. They are just remembering the simple ways to move stuff. in fact they probably just fail to notice well things moved a little only. It confuses them.

    They are thinking. they have a purpose and think how to do it. Including using their memory. They are living creatures.
    Intelligence is too final a word.
    The immune system is not thinking but only responding to a program.
    The birds could change their mind but not our immune system.

    Happanchance is not thinking. Computers don’t think.
    Creatures with life from Gods spirit floating over them on creation wekk do think.
    Animals just very poorly.
    people think greatly, like God, but don’t know things.

  6. 6
    Mark Frank says:

    The variety of factors which are offered as evidence for and against intelligence: time to complete task, need for practice, need to plan ahead, use of language etc – suggest very strongly that there isn’t a simple binary choice intelligent or not intelligent. Intelligence is conglomeration of related but different abilities. My dog is intelligent in some respects. This parrot in others. A friend of mine with severe mental disabilities is incapable of speech but very good at jigsaw puzzles.

    ID uses intelligence as an explanation for a lot. So this all goes to emphasise what is meant by intelligence in this case.

  7. 7
    Alan Fox says:

    As others point out, asking “is this animal, person, computer intelligent” is not very useful unless you have some idea of what you mean when you use the word. Is intelligence a homogeneous concept that can be analysed and measured over a range of species? We generally communicate our thoughts in words (OK, diagrams and waving your arms about can help) but having definitions is paramount to understanding. Intelligence is synonymous with cleverness and smartness (US sense) and is no more useful than these as a comparative descriptive. “ID scientists” would advance their cause immensely if they could come up with a useful definition of intelligence. An operational definition, a quantification, well, that would be finding the Holy grail!

    So this all goes to emphasise what is meant by intelligence in this case.

    As Mr Morecambe might have said, not a lot!

  8. 8
    Alan Fox says:

    What do you mean by “think”, Robert? 🙂

  9. 9
    bw says:

    It would be interesting to see if they could still do it with a reversed pin, reversed screw and reversed bolt. If they could solve that quickly that would be impressive as it would show that there might be a better underlying understanding.

  10. 10
    Alan Fox says:

    It would be interesting to see if they could still do it with a reversed pin, reversed screw and reversed bolt. If they could solve that quickly that would be impressive as it would show that there might be a better underlying understanding.

    But would it test for intelligence?

  11. 11
    bw says:

    Personally I would say that it would not. But as you mentioned defining and subsequently measuring intelligence itself is not a straight forward task.

    Some birds (crows I think) are known to carry nuts and drop them on busy roads so that cars crack them open when they are driven over. Some might consider this intelligence some not, either way it is very smart behaviour.

    A quick lookup shows that it is more officially defined as the acquisition and application of knowledge. So clearly a two part thing. Personally I think the crux is in the application; applying a specific knowledge accross more than one domain (better still a new/alien domain) is what I would classify as true intelligence.

  12. 12
    Joe says:

    Neil Rickert:

    It would be nice if ID proponents would clearly and precisely define what they mean by “intelligence.”

    We have. Again your ignorance is yours. Don’t blame us for it.

  13. 13
    Joe says:

    Alan Fox:

    An operational definition, a quantification, well, that would be finding the Holy grail!

    LoL! Alan’s position doesn’t have any “quantification”. No one knows how many mutations it takes to get, say, a bacterial flagellum in a population that never had one. No one knows how many mutations it takes to get a mammalian middle ear starting from a reptilian ear.

    Not only that but the operational definition of natural selection almost proves that it doesn’t do anything constructive.

  14. 14
    Joe says:

    Intelligence refers to agency which refers to that which can manipulate nature for its own purpose.

    Oh wow, it’s the same as used by forensic science and archaeology!

  15. 15
    keiths says:

    Hi vj,

    You wrote:

    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.

    My favorite counterexample is computer arithmetic. By your logic, computer arithmetic is impossible. Computers are material objects, and computers therefore cannot generate purely formal concepts such as “561 + 105 = 666”.

    Yet it seems obvious to me that computers can perform addition, so I have some questions for you:

    1. Do you agree that computers can perform addition, or would you argue that it isn’t “real” addition?

    2. If you agree that computers can perform real addition, then you are affirming that a formal concept can be instantiated in a purely physical system. If so, then why do you argue that “whatever we are, we’re not material objects”?

    3. If you think that computer addition isn’t “real”, then how do you distinguish between real and “imitation” addition, or between any real formal concept and its “imitation” counterpart?

    4. If computer addition isn’t “real”, but is still useful, then how do you know that human concepts don’t fall into that same category?

  16. 16
    Joe says:

    Computers are material objects…

    They are artifacts, designed for a purpose. IOW they are tools we have designed. And computers could not perform addition if they were not programmed to do so.

  17. 17
    Robert Byers says:

    Alan Fox
    Thinking seems to be the use of memory and options of it and of new data to bring about a purpose.
    The bird is not just a machine because it has a purpose and an awareness of the purpose. Its being therefore is involved in a purpose and aware its involved.
    Then it thinks how to bring it about.

    Thinking really comes down to the thing having a awareness of self.
    Computers don’t. The immune system doesn’t. They are both not beings who are alive.

  18. 18
    keiths says:

    vjtorley,

    I know you’re busy with your other thread, but I hope you’ll return to this one when you have time.

  19. 19
    vjtorley says:

    Hi KeithS:

    Sorry for not getting back to you sooner. I have a few questions for you:

    1. How do you define “computer”?

    2. Would you regard something that was cobbled together by a freak accident (tornado in a junkyard) but could be used to do sums, as a computer?

    3. What do you think of Steve Wolfram’s view that any object can be regarded as performing computations?

    In answer to your question: a device that can spit out answers but is by nature incapable of justifying them doesn’t seem to qualify as being intelligent. Adding, properly speaking, is an intellectual activity. The computer fails to qualify on this score. And even if it could be programmed to announce its “workings” as it calculated, it would still be unable to withstand critical questioning, as an intelligent agent should be able to do. So I’d be inclined to deny that it adds.

  20. 20
    keiths says:

    Hi vj,

    1. How do you define “computer”?

    I don’t think it really matters. Let’s just use a standard desktop computer as our referent.

    2. Would you regard something that was cobbled together by a freak accident (tornado in a junkyard) but could be used to do sums, as a computer?

    Yes. I think a computer is defined by what it does, not by how it was designed or assembled.

    3. What do you think of Steve Wolfram’s view that any object can be regarded as performing computations?

    I’m not familiar with Wolfram’s particular take on the subject, but I’m sympathetic to the idea. You could conceive of nature as a huge computation where the particles are data structures and the rules of physics are the program. Not sure how that’s relevant to the question at hand, though.

    In answer to your question: a device that can spit out answers but is by nature incapable of justifying them doesn’t seem to qualify as being intelligent.

    Well, we were discussing this statement from your OP:

    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.

    There’s nothing in that statement about intelligence, and a computer is certainly capable of generating formal concepts like “561 + 105 = 666”.

    And even if it could be programmed to announce its “workings” as it calculated, it would still be unable to withstand critical questioning, as an intelligent agent should be able to do. So I’d be inclined to deny that it adds.

    So then adding machines don’t add, calculators don’t add, and computers don’t add? That strikes me as a bizarre claim. If you give a computer a number A, and a number B, and the computer gives you a result equal to A+B, then it has added the numbers.

    Merriam-Webster definition of ‘addition’:

    3: the act or process of adding; especially : the operation of combining numbers so as to obtain an equivalent simple quantity

    Computers certainly do that.

    If you show a child an apple, and she sees it and identifies it as an apple, would you argue that she hasn’t really seen it because she is “unable to withstand critical questioning” or explain how her visual system works?

    Or more to the point, if a child adds two 5-digit numbers, using the method she was taught at school, would you seriously argue that she didn’t add them if she can’t “withstand critical questioning” or explain why her method works?

    I’d still be interested in your answers to my questions in #15 above.

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