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Science

Baboons Learn To Identify Words 111

Posted by Soulskill
from the didn't-i-just-see-this-movie dept.
thomst writes "Seth Borenstein of the AP reports on a story in the April 13 edition of Science (abstract here, full article paywalled) about a study of baboons at Aix-Marseille University in France that demonstrates the primates are capable of distinguishing between short, but real English words and gibberish letter combinations of similar length with an average of 75% accuracy over the course of 300,000 trials. One particularly talented subject named Dan, a 4-year-old baboon, is capable of 80% accuracy. The study's lead scientist, Jonathan Grainger, explains that a simple change in the study's methodology — allowing the subjects to work the training machine at times of their own choosing, rather than on a schedule determined by the researchers, made all the difference. When they are shown a sequence of letters, the subjects must choose between pushing a blue 'button' on a touchscreen (for a nonsense combination), or a green one (for an actual word). If they choose correctly, they get a food reward. Borenstein writes, 'The key is that these animals not only learned by trial and error which letter combinations were correct, but they also noticed which letters tend to go together to form real words, such as SH but not FX, said Grainger. So even when new words were sprung on them, they did a better job at figuring out which were real. Grainger said a pre-existing capacity in the brain may allow them to recognize patterns and objects, and perhaps that's how we humans also first learn to read.'"

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Baboons Learn To Identify Words

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  • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:29AM (#39672441)

    As long as no one teaches them the term "Corporate Whore," I think we'd be better off than with what we've got.

    Bobo no accept campaign contribution from Exxon. Bobo represent people.

  • I was wondering why all those screens were set up.

  • by srussia (884021) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:34AM (#39672485)
    to get those baboons to edit /.
    • by arisvega (1414195)

      In wonder if it would be considered cruel...

      In short, they understand language, and they know how to speek it. They just act as if they don't, because if they reveal it, then humans are going to put them to labor immediately.

      • by sackbut (1922510)

        In wonder if it would be considered cruel...

        In short, they understand language, and they know how to speek it. They just act as if they don't, because if they reveal it, then humans are going to put them to labor immediately.

        But perhaps they know how to use a spell checker...

        • by arisvega (1414195)

          But perhaps they know how to use a spell checker...

          Let's not take this too far- you wouldn't want them to turn to some sort of Nazis now, would you.

  • by fredrated (639554) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:37AM (#39672533) Journal

    The French were using english words?

  • by assertation (1255714) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:38AM (#39672539)

    If baboons can learn to recognize words is it ethical to use them in medical testing? Some retarded human beings can't do that much.

    • by jesseck (942036)
      I don't think this means much for that... maybe we can find out if putting a dozen warnings on a container's label has any effect on what happens to that container' contents. Besides, my dog recognizes commands from me, and my 3 year old tests nail polish on his claws. Perfectly ethical.
      • Dogs, like your dog, are also experimented on. Sometimes horrifically and sometimes for frivolous reasons. The nail polish your 3 year old puts on his claws was already tested on other animals.

    • by Empiric (675968) on Friday April 13, 2012 @10:50AM (#39673479) Homepage

      I'd ask it the other way around.

      If baboons can learn to recognize words, is it not ethical to use humans in medical testing?

      Then the bigger question: "Why?"

      • by ignavus (213578)

        I'd ask it the other way around.

        If baboons can learn to recognize words, is it not ethical to use humans in medical testing?

        Then the bigger question: "Why?"

        Sure it's ethical to experiment on humans.

        We'll start with you.

        Why not?

        • by Empiric (675968)

          Well, for one, I'd suggest consulting our respective worldviews, and see which one is likely to support having available the final response.

          Though, thanks for clearing out any ethical issues for me ahead of time.

    • I think you should read David Brin's Uplift series. It studies the ramifications of pre-sapience vs sapience.

      Personally, I think we should be working to boost the brain power of species like baboons and dolphins. The odds of an alien sapient species arriving on our planet in my lifetime are virtually nil. If we have any chance of conversing with a different sapient species in the short term, it's with a species we uplift from our planet's native stock. And personally I'd love to be alive for the first co

      • by tnk1 (899206)

        Although they may eventually develop differently, since the only template we have for sapience is our own, so I'm not sure how much we learn about it by just applying it to other species.

        Personally, I think there's already too many people who think they are the center of the universe, we don't need egotistical animals as well.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Jerry Was a Man [wikipedia.org].

      I don't think intelligence counts nearly as much as the ability to suffer, but a baboon is likely to suffer far more in the wild than in a researcher's lab. And despite Heinlein's short story's title, baboons aren't human.

      • I don't think intelligence counts nearly as much as the ability to suffer, but a baboon is likely to suffer far more in the wild than in a researcher's lab.

        I don't know if I would agree with that. A baboon in the wild might go hungry from time to time before it has one short, but intense episode of suffering before death: getting caught by a predator. Before that it is living free and to its instincts.

        In a research lab, a baboon would live in a cage, with its freedom of movement restricted. Its death

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      Yes, but we have to ask them for their consent.
        "If you sign that paper you can get this banana! Now that's a good monkey!"

    • This is not meant to be mean or flame but I guess as long as baboons can't defend themselves properly, I think they consider it ethical. lets face it, if they can defend themselves and understand language I believe they should be equal to us ...in some way or part. I'm not an expert on this but considering them just pure material for experiments at this point should be non ethical if you ask me.
  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:39AM (#39672553) Homepage Journal

    I wonder if this would work with other writing systems. Could they learn to tell real Chinese characters from random fake ones, for example?

    • by wvmarle (1070040)

      That's tricky for most Chinese too, especially if e.g. normal components are used to create a fake. On top of that, many users of the various Chinese dialects create their own characters to write down words unique for their dialect, if they don't want to use the formal written form. And I don't think there are any Chinese that know all existing characters. They know a subset only (you need to know something like 5,000 characters for reading the newspaper; I have seen estimates of 80,000 existing characters)

  • by Lucas123 (935744) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:39AM (#39672559) Homepage
    this is going to end with Charlton Heston on a beach cursing at the Statue of Liberty.
  • by benjfowler (239527) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:42AM (#39672585)

    ... welcome our new literate simian overlords.

  • What I take (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SJHillman (1966756) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:47AM (#39672627)

    "The study's lead scientist, Jonathan Grainger, explains that a simple change in the study's methodology — allowing the subjects to work the training machine at times of their own choosing, rather than on a schedule determined by the researchers, made all the difference."

    What I take from this is that when I was in high school, I should have been able to get up at noon and go to school then if I wanted to. Guarantee I would have learned more in calculus than having it at 7:30am.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "The refs are calling too many penalties."

  • stop it (Score:4, Funny)

    by P-niiice (1703362) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:50AM (#39672671)
    stop teaching useful skills to animals with big pointy teeth please

    teach them to laugh at youtube or something
    • Come on, they are pushing colored buttons on a touchscreen. Given the amount of real work that people do on iPads, I say it's a pretty harmless activity.

      Don't teach 'em the command line, or they will pwn us in half a generation.

    • by DaKong (150846)

      I see you've met my wife.

  • by subreality (157447) on Friday April 13, 2012 @10:00AM (#39672767)

    "allowing the subjects to work the training machine at times of their own choosing, rather than on a schedule determined by the researchers, made all the difference."

    This is directly applicable to humans as well, and probably deserves more research.

  • by Sarten-X (1102295) on Friday April 13, 2012 @10:00AM (#39672773) Homepage

    Grainger said a pre-existing capacity in the brain may allow them to recognize patterns and objects

    That reminds me of a column [scientificamerican.com] I read a while ago suggesting exactly that, and offering an evolutionary basis for it, along with an explanation for conspiracy theories. I guess this means that literacy begets superstition?

  • "Researchers make great strides in understanding the means by which these rather primitive humans use to communicate."
  • If Baboons can read and learn, there's hope yet for climate deniers, creationists and possibly even most of the Republican party.
  • by Dannon (142147)

    Someone get an infinite number of these word-recognizing baboons, and an infinite number of typewriters!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    " ... perhaps that's how we humans also first learn to read."

    We didn't learn how to write until much later.

  • So basically baboons are worse at recognizing words than dogs and babies? Why is this news?

    Pigs can do this too, if you believe farmers.

    What this paper seems to say is that if you spend lots of money and time you can get baboons to do stuff that's marginally interesting.

  • First, I would want to start with animals of even higher (subjective, to me) intelligence -- crows, african grey parrots, octopui, squid, elephants, bees, maybe domestic dogs and cats -- and then perform similar experimentation with all forms of human language: gesture (sign) language, written language and especially spoken language. I would especially like to do a double-blinded study with safely-administered psychedelics. We already know that psychedelics have a large effect on the language center of the human mind, so it would be natural for a similar effect to be present upon other animals. Most of those animals already have proven to have communication mechanisms and tool-using capabilities that are non-trivial, and so I feel they already have a similar language capability to humans. Those could be even potentiated through the use of thought-enhancing drugs.
    • by ZaskarX (1314327)

      You mean you've never gotten stoned and talked to your dog? Try it! I promise he will have some very interesting things to say.

      • I'm more talking about getting your dog stoned... Granted, I don't have a dog, but my friend's dog stoned turns into a cuddle-monster. She's normally a very sweet and talkative dog, one of relatively high intellect from my own life's experience with dogs. But she was pretty quiet after eating a special cookie, not her usual talkative self!
  • The Commission for Shakespearean Literature thanks Aix-Marseille University for its contribution towards re-creating some of Shakespeare's lost works. We look forward to your effort in producing a line of typographical input devices, such as would be more ergonomically suitable for this work.

    Please accept this anti-lice shampoo as a token of our gratitude.

  • We should use this teaching method in the Palmetto State. I can imagine a day where our literacy rate is nearly as high as our unemployment rate!
  • She's at something like 5% accuracy. But what she reads to me is pretty damn funny.

  • No, really! She could.

  • Can they learn sign language like Gorillas, and communicate with sentence structure to convey an understanding of more abstract concepts like the passage of time? It seems like that could be a possibility, since sentence structure is kind of an extrapolation of spelling.

    Birds (mostly I'm thinking of parrots) are known to develop large vocabularies, and gain a sense of context to the noises they make, as an exchange of information regarding their own situational awareness. Understanding noises and even wo
    • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

      Can they learn sign language like Gorillas, and communicate with sentence structure to convey an understanding of more abstract concepts like the passage of time? It seems like that could be a possibility, since sentence structure is kind of an extrapolation of spelling.

      Birds (mostly I'm thinking of parrots) are known to develop large vocabularies, and gain a sense of context to the noises they make, as an exchange of information regarding their own situational awareness. Understanding noises and even words, and discerning their meanings relative to context is a task that many animals are capable of. Beyond mere habituation through operant conditioning, we have seen Dolphins, Dogs, Pigs, Horses, Elephants and all the Great Apes perform similar tasks through vocalization. But literacy and text is a pretty interesting twist for baboons.

      Most, if not all of the animals you mention have language they use. That isn't doubted. The question is can they be taught a language that we, human beings, understand?

  • Mae'n dda nad oeddent yn defnyddio'r Gymraeg.
  • > Baboons Learn To Identify Words

    Still Won't Read Words Before Voting On Them

    Bada-bing!

  • by Dcnjoe60 (682885) on Friday April 13, 2012 @11:12AM (#39673785)

    Words are made up of letters. Letters are specific shapes. So words are basically patterns of shapes. The baboons are able to identify specific patterns of shapes 75% of the time. That should come as no surprise, because in their natural environment, they must also be able to identify specific patterns of shapes to survive. Teaching them new patterns, while interesting, is just expanding on what they already do in nature.

    It does not mean, however, they can distinguish one word from another, such as dog and cat, although I am sure they can be trained to do that. Nor does it mean that they can interpret the pattern d o g or the pattern c a t to mean a dog or a cat, although, again, I'm sure they can be trained to do that. The real question, as it relates to reading, is can they assimilate what they are seeing. If not, they aren't actually reading.

    While driving a car and stopping because you see a big octagon shaped sign is not the same as reading the word "STOP" on it, even though both give the same desired outcome.

  • Lets just go ahead and send a cowboy into space.

    Then we can get our "Get your hands off me you damn dirty ape"!
  • Oh wait. That's already happened.

  • I guess you wouldn't need an infinite number of monkeys after all.
  • Frogs are giving tests to baboons.

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