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.
The idea is to keep him from getting bored, because without stimulation, she says, parrots exhibit destructive behaviors. “They scream and chew their feathers. The bird is just trying to get the owner’s attention. It’s like a two-year-old in a playpen with just one toy.”
Pepperberg, a visiting associate professor who graduated from MIT with a degree in chemistry in 1969, says that on many tasks African Gray parrots are as intelligent as chimpanzees and dolphins and some have the cognitive skills of a five-year-old child — not in terms of language, but in terms of problem solving. She claims that parrots are happier and less neurotic if they have something to do.
“Many pet owners give parrots a few toys and leave them alone for eight or nine hours a day. But like children, they need interaction,” she says, adding that parrots are social creatures and live in flocks in the wild.
The online project, called the InterPet Explorer, allows the parrot to navigate a set of sites, including pictures, music, and wildlife videos. “We’re still trying to figure out what they like to watch,” she says. “My suspicion is that each bird will have different preferences.”
The project was conceived by a 20-member group at the Media Lab who began brainstorming on how to best entertain the birds. Grad student Benjamin Resner tossed out the idea of teaching them to surf the Web.
“It started almost as a joke, but people said, ‘that’s so cool, you have to do it,'” says Resner, who imagines a day when Arthur can play games, enter chat rooms with other parrots, and talk to his owner through the computer.
So far there have been a couple of snags. Parrots don’t seem to learn from images on cathode-ray-tube screens, so the team got Arthur a flat-panel, liquid-crystal monitor. And they also built him a navigational system — a customized mouse made of a flat piece of plastic with a hole in it for him to insert his beak.
Whether or not Arthur will be able to understand what he sees is still being worked out. But so far, whenever he is interested in an image, he pecks at the screen.
WORK WITH ALEX
Pepperberg, a researcher from the University of Arizona, began her research with Alex, a parrot she bought in a Chicago pet store in 1977. Last year, she attracted international attention when the Harvard University Press published “The Alex Studies,” a book that details her experiments with him.
So far, she and her students have taught Alex to label 50 different objects using English words. He knows five shapes, seven colors, and four materials. And he can recognize quantities up to six.
“Many pet owners give parrots a few toys and leave them alone for eight or nine hours a day. But like children, they need interaction.”
He also has learned the concepts of categorization — same and different, bigger and smaller, and he is now working on the idea of over and under — giant steps in human intellectual development. If you show Alex two objects of different shape, color, and material, and ask him what’s the same? He answers, “none.” Therefore, he seems to understand not only the concepts of same and different but also the abstract concept of absence.
His abilities are not simply a matter of memorization, Pepperberg says, “because he has to know not only what he is saying, but what we are saying in order to answer the questions.”
Many scientists say that only people can think. “We know that’s not true,” Pepperberg adds. “The question is to what extent do other animals think, and to what extent is their thinking similar to ours. But there’s certainly enough data from experimental psychological labs to show that these animals can process information.”
DRAWN AS A CHILD
Pepperberg grew up in New York City, where she had a parakeet and taught it to speak. “It made a big impression on me,” she says, adding that as an only child the bird was her companion.
While she was studying for a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry, which she received from Harvard University in 1976, she got the idea to study parrots. She had seen PBS Nova documentaries on how animals learn and was amazed. The films focused on chimps using sign language, communication with dolphins, and research on singing whales and birds. She became fascinated with the idea that animals could communicate with people.
She wanted to switch her field of study, but instead decided to sit in on courses at Harvard in behavior, child language acquisition, and basic psychology. Soon after obtaining her degree, she got Alex and began her research in a lab at Purdue University. Now at MIT, she spends about 13 hours a day with her parrots. Most of the time, the birds are happy and engaged, she says, but occasionally they exhibit destructive behaviors. “I recently gave a talk, and it was shorter than planned because Arthur had gotten onto my desk and chewed up a third of my slides.”