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Alex, The Brainy Parrot Who Knows About Zero435

Roland Piquepaille writes "Alex is a 28-year-old grey parrot who lives in a lab at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and can count, identify objects, shapes, colors and materials. And now, Alex has grasped the concept of zero, according to World Science. In fact, Alex can describe the absence of a numerical quantity on a tray containing colored cubes. When a color is missing, Alex consistently identified this 'zero quantity' by saying the label 'none.' You might think that this is just a parrot trick, but this research about 'bird intelligence' might also help autistic and other learning-disabled children 'who have trouble learning language and counting skills.' This overview contains other details, references and a picture of Alex counting his colored cubes."
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Alex, The Brainy Parrot Who Knows About Zero

• zero (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:32PM (#13028037)
zeroth post!
• Re:zero (Score:4, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:45PM (#13028124)
This parrot can be a good C programmer! Maybe even better than those chimps [newtechusa.com].
• Re:zero (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:56PM (#13028176)
zeroth post!

So does that mean the parrot has you beat since he understands the concept of zero and you don't? ;)
• Re:zero (Score:3, Funny)

Dammit. My job's been outsourced to a parrot! And the pay is just birdseed!

In other news, chimps are learning .NET

• Re:zero (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:40PM (#13028395)
I suppose you'll be wanting a cracker now?
• NULL (Score:3, Funny)

Now if he can just grasp the concept of NULL, he can do SQL.
• Re:NULL (Score:3, Funny)

Does *anyone* fully grasp the concept of SQL's NULL? ;)
• Ah (Score:2, Interesting)

That's good. Now if only they could fix the problems and not just the symptoms.
• Hubris (Score:5, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:35PM (#13028059) Homepage
This just goes how much we underestimate animals and overvalue ourselves. We'd like to believe that the evolution gap between us and every other species is too broad to be even fathomed, but it's simply not true. I know some people will reply and say that we all know that we came from apes, but I'm not talking about what we know, but how we act. We treat animals like they don't have emotions and that they aren't capable of the same types of understanding as us. In the future I imagine we are going to see that animals can do a lot of things we never though and are even better than us in some areas of intellect.
• Re:Hubris (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:39PM (#13028090)
I hope you're not a member of PETA, unless it's the People for Eating Tastey Animals variety.
• Re:Hubris (Score:2)

I sware it! If this bird can balance my checkbook better then I can, I will never say "bird brain" in the form of an insult.
• Re:Hubris... Yes... (Score:2)

And I for one welcome our new feline masters...
• Re:Hubris... Yes... (Score:5, Insightful)

<tmh@nodomain.org> on Sunday July 10, 2005 @06:07PM (#13028546) Homepage
And I for one welcome our new feline masters...

You missspelled 'avian'.
• Re:Hubris... Yes... (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @08:50PM (#13029508) Homepage
"And I for one welcome our new feline masters...

You missspelled 'avian'."

You misspelled "misspelled"...

_____________________________
Dyslexics of the world untie!
• Re:Hubris (Score:4, Insightful)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:39PM (#13028383) Homepage
In some ways, it's hubris to think that animals could be close to our intelligence.

Humans have been writing symbols, farming, living in cities, using horses/camels etc for land travel, using boats for sea travel, etc etc etc. for how many thousands of years now?

Not to mention, how many animals actually verbally communicate from generation to generation, use tools, or keep domesticated pets or farm animals, and we've been doing that for how many tens of thousands of years? (yes, I think there are some, but we've been doing these things for a very long time)

I mean, it's not like animals could hide that sort of thing. If animals were going to be doing sub-atomic research and travelling in space in the next couple of thousand years, you'd think the scale of their culture would be really bleeding obvious right now. And given that most animals have had a longer amount of time to work this stuff out than we have, I'd say that it's clear we're on top.

(granted, it's cool to learn that animals are smarter than we previously thought, but let's not infer that just because you can jump up and down, that soon you'll be able to reach the moon)

• Re:Hubris (Score:2)

So because a parrot can apparently do some basic arithmetic we should treat them better? I worry about your ethical sense if ability to pass a mathematics test determines your treatment. Maybe we should kill all mentally handicapped people who have trouble with addition. And maybe we should grant my abacus Constitutional rights.
• Not likely. (Score:3, Insightful)

A lot of schmucks will probably treat these sorts of interesting things like novelty party tricks and move on.

Most people can't even treat other people with respect, so to me it's unrealistic to expect them to ever care about anything outside their own species except for personal gain or as lunch.

Of course, there are exceptions.

What can I say? I'm just a cynical bastard. :P
• Re:Hubris (Score:3, Interesting)

I strongly disgree. Animals /are/ often given a bad rap, but .. no!
Koko the monkey knows sign language, she's so smart, right? No! She only knows it because humans taught it to her. This parrot only knows about zero because humans taught it the concept.

Animals are a lot, but smart in the way (sigh, some) human beings are they are not.
• Alex the Brainy Parrot says.. (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:35PM (#13028061)
Alex The Brainy Parrot says:
Roland Piquepaaaaaaaille went from <none> to \$500 in three minutes.
• Polly... (Score:2, Funny)

Instead of polly want a cracker, maybe we will start saying polly want to do a math problem?
• Re:Polly... (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:58PM (#13028188)
Oh, I get it. polly-nomials!

• Article: The Brainy Parrot Who Knows About Zero (Score:5, Informative)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:37PM (#13028072)
Alex is a 28-year-old grey parrot who lives in a lab at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and can count, identify objects, shapes, colors and materials. And now, Alex has grasped the concept of zero, according to World Science. In fact, Alex can describe the absence of a numerical quantity on a tray containing colored cubes. When a color is missing, Alex consistently identified this "zero quantity" by saying "none." You might think that this is just a parrot trick, but this research about 'bird intelligence' might also help autistic and other learning-disabled children "who have trouble learning language and counting skills." Read more...

One of the really interesting things about Alex is that it had learned in the past that "none" meant a lack of information. And without any training, when Alex was asked to say how many green or red cubes were on a tray in front of him, he spontaneously said "none" when there was no cubes with this color. In fact, he was able to connect two different concepts, a lack of information and the absence of a quantity. Pretty brilliant parrot, isn't?

Before going further, below is a picture of Alex in front of his counting blocks (Credit: Brandeis University). And here is a link to a larger version (193 KB).

A 'cultured' hamburger

Now, let's look at how the researchers made the discovery that Alex possessed a "zero-like concept."

The story began when researchers started testing Alex to see whether he understood small numbers, between one and six. Zero wasn't expected of him. The researchers would lay out an array of objects of different colors and sizes, and asked questions such as "what color four?" -- meaning which color are the objects of which there are four.

Apparently, Alex was pretty good on these tests, until he got bored. So the researchers "found some more interesting toys to give as rewards." And here came the decisive experiment.

One of these apparent lapses occurred one day when an experimenter asked Alex "what color three?" Laid out before Alex were sets of two, three and six objects, each set differently colored. Alex insisted on responding: "five." This made no sense given that the answer was supposed to be a color.

After several tries the experimenter gave up and said: "OK, Alex, tell me: what color five?" "None," the bird replied. This was correct, in that there was no color that graced exactly five of the objects. The researchers went on to incorporate "none" into future trials, and Alex consistently used the word correctly, they said.

A few days after this article was published, Brandeis University decided to issue a press release adding that Alex was the "first bird to comprehend numerical concept akin to zero."

"It is doubtful that Alex's achievement, or those of some other animals such as chimps, can be completely trained; rather, it seems likely that these skills are based on simpler cognitive abilities they need for survival, such as recognition of more versus less," explained comparative psychologist and cognitive scientist Dr. Irene Pepperberg.

Dr. Pepperberg's research, which uses a training method called the model-rival technique, also holds promise for teaching autistic and other learning-disabled children who have difficulty learning language, numerical concepts and even empathy.

So far, results using this learning technique with small groups of autistic children have been very promising.

The latest research work about Alex and his comprehension of zero has been published by the Journal of Comparative Psychology in its May 2005 issue (Volume 119, Issue 2) under the name "Number Comprehension by a Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus), Including a Zero-Like Concept." You'll get to the abstract from this page (scroll to number #8).

A Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) that was able to quantify 6 item sets (including subsets of heterogeneous groups, e.g., blue blocks within groupings of blue and green blocks and balls) us
• Symptom, not the cause. (Score:3, Insightful)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:38PM (#13028078) Homepage
You might think that this is just a parrot trick, but this research about 'bird intelligence' might also help autistic and other learning-disabled children 'who have trouble learning language and counting skills.'
I still think it's a parrot trick, and when translated to autistic kids, it's just an autistic kid trick. Training someone how to react to a situation and making them understand it are very different things, i.e. I could teach a four year old how to recite the quadratic equation, it doesn't mean they can use it.
• Re:Symptom, not the cause. (Score:5, Insightful)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:47PM (#13028133)
One of these apparent lapses occurred one day when an experimenter asked Alex "what color three?" Laid out before Alex were sets of two, three and six objects, each set differently colored. Alex insisted on responding: "five." This made no sense given that the answer was supposed to be a color.

After several tries the experimenter gave up and said: "OK, Alex, tell me: what color five?" "None," the bird replied. This was correct, in that there was no color that graced exactly five of the objects. The researchers went on to incorporate "none" into future trials, and Alex consistently used the word correctly, they said.

If the researcher's comments on the subject are true and they aren't suffering from "proud parrot syndrome", how do you explain that the parrot decided to "up the ante" and play a more difficult game?

It's apparent from their words that the parrot does understand that there was a group that did not exist and thus it isn't some silly trick.
• I'm still gonna go with "silly parrot trick" (Score:3, Insightful)

Actually, I'm not convinced of that. The question was still "what color five?", and "none" is a numerical answer, not a color answer. The bird had previously spat out a different nonsensical answer to the question "what color three?"

As the article says, "zero" and "none" are not quite identical. Perhaps the bird is showing substantial insight and playing a new game; perhaps it's just bored and throwing out random stuff.

Among humans, the "invention" of zero is a lot more than being able to count zero obj
• Re:I'm still gonna go with "silly parrot trick" (Score:2)

Biologically speaking it's not much different from a chicken.

And biologically speaking, you're not much different from a goat.

Parrots are remarkably intelligent, social animals with abilities seemingly far beyond the amount of grey matter they actually possess. I gather that the Alex experiment has been to see where the limits actually are - I'm not convinced by this 'zero' thing, but the bird's definitely learned counting beyond the level of a mere parlour trick...
• Re:I'm still gonna go with "silly parrot trick" (Score:4, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @08:02PM (#13029221) Homepage Journal
If you'd read any of Pepperberg's studies of Alex [amazon.com] (or, for that matter, anted up the ~\$12 for this article like I did, parrot owner and science nerd that I am) you'd understand that Alex actually tested to see if Alex was using "none" as a way of meaning "zero."

Alex was taught "none" to describe when two blocks of different colors but the same size were presented and Alex was asked "Which color bigger?" In that case, Alex used the word "none" to indicate that they were the same size.

To go from using "none" to indicate that there was no difference to use it to indicate that there were no items of the described characteristics is a small leap for an adult human, but very difficult for small human children and parrots.

Non-human primates can't make that kind of jump. In some ways, Alex, with the brain the size of a walnut, is smarter than an ape with a much bigger brain! Of course, evolution would have selected for a low-weight, highly effective brain in birds because of the weight cost of flying.

Based on what's described in the newest article, I actually suspect that Alex was looking for a word to express just this concept, or something like it. He may have had the concept before he had a word to describe it.

Pepperberg, by the way, knows that she is working in a suspect realm of science. If she cannot document something with experimental evidence that holds up under statistical analysis, she won't say it. That also means that her scientific writing is almost impossible to parse. It's great research, but if you read too much of it, your eyes will bleed.

The best example is the proof that Alex can be ornery. Anyone who owns a parrot knows the #\$%^ birds are ornery. But when Alex acted up and proceeded to answer questions wrong, Alex went through every possible answer except the correct one. Pepperberg showed that the probability of that happening by chance was extremely unlikely, and that the only reasonable explanation was that Alex was deliberately answering incorrectly.

One last thing: If Alex is simply answering questions, Alex has an accuracy rate of about 80%. If Alex is competing with another parrot or someone Alex doesn't like, the accuracy goes up to 100%. When attempting to give incorrect answers, again, the accuracy is 100%

There is no doubt in my mind that Alex considers the humans around him to be the inferior species, to be messed with at will. If Pepperberg thinks that as well, she won't say it...until she can prove it conclusively with experiments and statistics.

• Re:Symptom, not the cause. (Score:3, Insightful)

I'm not really convinced that the distinction that you are making (i.e. between understanding and behaviour memorisation) really exists. In my opinion, understanding is a kind of encoding, meaning you take a kernel of knowledge and can deduce the rest from it. However the kernel still needs to be memorised.

For instance, a mathematician can do great things with a Euler's equation, but if he/she cannot remember the formula in the first place, they are not going to get anywhere.

My point is that what you c

• Re:Symptom, not the cause. (Score:2)

I'm not really convinced that the distinction that you are making (i.e. between understanding and behaviour memorisation) really exists.

If you have a headache, take Tylenol. You will get a prize - your headache will go away. So you understand that tylenol makes your headache go away. Lucky you. You have reached parrot level. Eventually your behaviour will be that you take tylenol every time you have a headache.

How does Tylenol work? Unless you're a biochemist, an MD, or a pharmacologist, you don'
• Re:Symptom, not the cause. (Score:2)

I still think it's a parrot trick, and when translated to autistic kids, it's just an autistic kid trick.

I'll play the devil's advocate here for a sec. You know that a behavioural scientist would argue "what do you care if it's a stupid parrot or autistic kid trick or not, the point is I have changed his behaviour and now he can do something he couldn't do before. What he THINKS he is doing is irrelevant. What is important is that in a given situation he now reacts by doing B instead of A."

OK I a
• Re:Symptom, not the cause. (Score:5, Informative)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:54PM (#13028171) Journal
Except the article pretty clearly states that Alex has NEVER BEEN TRAINED to exhibit this behaviour. This parrot linked the "none" answer to an absence of information by itself.
• Re:Symptom, not the cause. (Score:4, Interesting)

<imipak AT yahoo DOT com> on Sunday July 10, 2005 @07:01PM (#13028874) Homepage Journal
It is arguable as to how extensively Alex could have been trained on anything else - a vocabulary of 250 words and the ability to cound up to something like 12 gives you room for a lot of permutations.

It was already clear that Alex was capable of determining the result of permutations that he had never been exposed to previously even if he was familiar with the individual elements.

What is now clear is that Alex can derive vocabulary for permutations that do not match recognized combinations.

The derivation of values for words is something that diferrentiates deduction from association. Alex was able to deduce (presumably from observation) that "none" was a valid word and what it meant.

This makes sense, as 99% of Alex' training IS by example. Two humans run the tests between themselves, Alex observes. One of the humans then carries out similar tests with Alex, to see if he has learned from his observations.

The idea that he may have learned from unintended training sessions is therefore no great surprise. What would be a great surprise is if this is all he has learned. I think the researchers should try to see what else Alex has discovered. Before he starts sending out blackmail notes.

• Re:Symptom, not the cause. (Score:5, Insightful)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:15PM (#13028263)
So, prove to everyone that your sentience is based on more than just a bunch of automated and learned responses to stimuli.

• No way is it a parrot trick (Score:5, Informative)

<imipak AT yahoo DOT com> on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:29PM (#13028320) Homepage Journal
If you can ask the question "subtract the number of red cars from the number of green balls", and get the right answer, you're dealing with something that is NOT rote memorization.

If you can ask questions involving grammar, adjectives and nouns, and be able to change them around and STILL get correct answers, it is clearly not simple comparison tricks.

Autistic tricks are about simple store/recall of rote information, but there is no evidence here of simple store/recall mechanisms being involved. This is not some piece of amateur research over a weekend, this has been going on for 15 years with consistant and repeatable results.

• That's not new... (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:39PM (#13028089)
What about that raven which understood the concept of 'nevermore'?
• Ravens put chimps to shame (Score:5, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:37PM (#13028368) Journal
Don't diss ravens [nationmaster.com], they can make tools [earthlink.net], sometimes more proficiently than apes ! I've seen one of these birds cut a small rectangle of spiky leaf to use as a hook to pull some juicy worms from a dead tree bark; and another cut a stick from a tree, remove the leaves then make one end into a hook for the same task, in mere seconds.
• Re:Ravens put chimps to shame (Score:4, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @08:04PM (#13029228) Homepage
Ravens and their crow cousins are exceptional in the world of birds, a fact which has been known for some time. They can and will craft tools and find ingenious solutions to problems in ways that no other bird can mimick.

They also have very distinct differences in brain morphology when compared to other birds - not to mention larger and more complex brains. It seems that over time they're specializing for something other birds aren't: more grey matter. It'd be fascinating to see how they develop over the next two or three million years.

Max
• Bah, that's nothing. (Score:4, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @06:03PM (#13028536)
The majority of PHBs that I know consider themselves quite brainy - and they know zero as well.
• Smart bird (Score:2, Interesting)

I read a book [amazon.com] a while back about the history of the idea of zero. It tooks humans quite a while to get zero right, it's quite cool that a bird got it.
• To summarize... (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:40PM (#13028094) Homepage
Modern science = Stupid parrot tricks

I always knew David Lettermen was onto something with stupid pet tricks, I'm surprised he never got a grant.
• Re:To summarize... (Score:2)

No, only smart parrots can do this trick, not stupid ones.
• He's Not Counting (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:41PM (#13028099) Homepage
He's pining for the fjords
• Re:He's Not Counting (Score:2)

I don't think they have got so far as to having the parrot do polygons or identifying Norwegian blues from notlob
• Re:He's Not Counting (Score:2)

He's just sleeping.
• FTA (Score:4, Informative)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:41PM (#13028101) Homepage

Thank you for the offer, Timothy.

• hmmm (Score:4, Insightful)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:41PM (#13028103)
Guess I'll have to rethink my intent when I call someone a bird brain!

On a side note, why is the concept of zero considered so advanced on the intelligence ladder? I know it was well after Greek times that man came to terms with it. But could it be the case that we were over-thinking its concept?

Maybe someone can better describe this article's subject's significance... all I know, from my own observations, is that my dog certainly demonstrates a form of awareness whenever there's zero food in its dish!
• Re:hmmm (Score:3, Interesting)

Read a book (I've got it right here) called Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. written by Charles Seife.

Here's how imporant zero is. without it and infinity, calculus would simply not exist in the form we have today. Pascal used Zero with probability (correct me if I'm wrong on that statement) to "prove" god existed. The Church used Zero to fight heretics. Without Zero, we'd not have concepts defining the absence of something by a number. Zero is versatile, just like Carlin and his spiel on the "F" w
• Re:hmmm (Score:3, Insightful)

Because an understanding of the difference between 'present' and 'absent' is a much more fundamental idea than that of 'number'. Treating them as related concepts is a big step:

1. If it's here it's 'present'; if not, it's 'absent'
2. If it's here I can count it
3. ...
4. I can count 'absent' things too!
• Watch Alex' brother parrot (Score:2)

Here [bulldotshit.com]. He can't count too good though, Norwegian blues stun easily....
• Very Intelligent (Score:3, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:44PM (#13028118)
My relatives have a african grey parrot and they are in fact really smart. They even seem to answer your questions (and complete sentences or phrases). Only thing is that they bite real hard so you might want to keep a distance while talking/playing with them.
• Re:Very Intelligent (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:42PM (#13028405)
My relatives have a african grey parrot and they are in fact really smart. They even seem to answer your questions (and complete sentences or phrases). Only thing is that they bite real hard so you might want to keep a distance while talking/playing with them.

I generally avoid relatives who bite while talking/playing. But, um, congratulations on their discovery of grammar!

• Re:Very Intelligent (Score:4, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:51PM (#13028453)
My relatives have a african grey parrot and they are in fact really smart. They even seem to answer your questions (and complete sentences or phrases). Only thing is that they bite real hard so you might want to keep a distance while talking/playing with them.

Yeah, my relatives are the same way.
• Brainy Holand Piquepaille grasps concept of \$0 (Score:5, Funny)

<uman@umanwizard.com> on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:45PM (#13028123)
Scientists have reported today that Holand Piquepaille, perennial Slashdot whore and troll, has finally grasped the concept of \$0.

"It's amazing", reported one scientist. "Although usually it takes human-level intelligence to grasp the concept of submitting news articles without any chance for a monetary return, we were able to teach the concept to Holand Piquepaille."

Unfortunately, the results are not yet conclusive, and it remains to be seen whether or not Holand Piquepaille will return all the money he duped out of people for looking at primidi.com. Scientists are hopeful, but note, "This is the first time that this concept has ever been documented in this particular species of whore, so we still need lots more evidence for the data to be conclusive."

Another researcher pointed out: "Holand has demonstrated the concept of \$0, but we're not sure if he's grasped what he wanted him to, or if he's just hit on related themes like 'The amount of value my posts add to Slashdot'."

Scientists hope that further research will prove that Holand is destined to lead a life of future altruism. Keep your hopes up!
• Yeah, but can it do negatives? (Score:5, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:47PM (#13028131) Journal

A parrot that counts 0 blue blocks is all fine and dandy. But can he count --3 red balls? Or 5i yellow chips?

See, you're not so smart are you, eh, bird-brain?

• Re:Yeah, but can it do negatives? (Score:2, Funny)

Can you? Go on, count to 5i.

• Re:Yeah, but can it do negatives? (Score:2)

Only in his imagination :-). Mod parent funny!
• Re:Yeah, but can it do negatives? (Score:2)

Well, which way would you like it? It's not unique, e.g.,

• 0, i, 2i, 3i, 4i, 5i
• 0, sqrt([5 + sqrt(5)]/2)/2 + i (sqrt(5) - 1)/4, (1 + sqrt(5))/2 + i sqrt([5 - sqrt(5)]/2), 3[sqrt([5 - sqrt(5)]/2)/2 + i (1 + sqrt(5))/4], sqrt(5) - 1 + 2i sqrt([5 + sqrt(5)]/2) ,5i
• and the parrot replies... (Score:3, Funny)

But can he count --3 red balls?

Parrot: "Let's jump off a skyscraper while I'm counting your balls."

See, you're not so smart are you, eh, bird-brain?

Parrot: "Smart enough to be able to shit on your head and not a damm thing you can do about it."
• None vs. Unknown (Score:3, Insightful)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:48PM (#13028138) Homepage Journal
But if it had coloured balls moving rapidly so it couldn't count them, would it be able to comprehend a difference (if taught the vocabulary) between "None" and "Unknown"? That needs to be tested, otherwise this is just another example of bad science.
• Re:None vs. Unknown (Score:5, Informative)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:08PM (#13028234)
The training of Alex is an experiment which is constantly in progress. This isn't "bad science" but "science in progress."

It's kind of like condemning an experiment by reading one progress report, decades before the final report is available. And I say decades because Alex is 28 and African Grey parrots can live to be 65+ years old.

I just saw something last night on Animal Planet on the "Most Extreme" intelligent animals. Parrots were #1, specifically this bird Alex, who has been in training for almost 20 years, I think it is.

My dad has an African Grey whose name is Max. Max is not as intelligent as Alex, but he demonstrates a limited intelligence. Simple things like saying "come here" when he wants attention or saying "whoops" when he drops a piece of food. It isn't on par with the counting and identifying that Alex can do.

If you see video of Alex, it's totally amazing. He can identify what objects are made of (wood, metal, wool), he can identify colors (red, blue, yellow, green) and even count up to five--now including zero. He can even flip you attitude: "wanna go sleep" or "wanna go home" or "hungry" -- all in the middle of a training session.

More on Alex can be found here: http://www.alexfoundation.org/ [alexfoundation.org]
Alex's trainer for the past two decades, Dr. Irene M. Pepperberg, is a visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab, as well: http://web.media.mit.edu/~impepper/ [mit.edu]
• Re:None vs. Unknown (Score:2)

But if it had coloured balls moving rapidly so it couldn't count them [...]

Can't... stop... laughing...
• Alex probably knows the Holy Grail.. (Score:5, Funny)

<`prsn.kev' `at' `gmail.com'> on Sunday July 10, 2005 @04:51PM (#13028151)
Professor: Alex, tell me what color 4?
Alex: Blue, no Yelllllllllloooooooooooooooowww
• In related news... (Score:2)

"Alex, tell me...."

"Forty two."
• And the winner is... (Score:2)

And the winner of the 2005 Ig Nobel prize in the field of psychology goes to...
• Dumb Roland (Score:3, Funny)

by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:15PM (#13028261)

In fact, Alex can describe the absence of a numerical quantity on a tray containing colored cubes. When a color is missing, Alex consistently identified this 'zero quantity' by saying the label 'none.'

Newsflash: Roland Piquepaille is dumber than a parrot!

Zero is not the absence of a numerical quantity. Zero is a numerical quantity. The absence of a numerical quantity is when you don't know how much there is of something.

It's like the difference between 0 and NULL in a database. This parrot is smarter than both Roland Piquepaille and MySQL developers.

• Bird Brains (Score:3, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:19PM (#13028276) Homepage
Having reluctantly allowed my wife to keep cockatiels [wikipedia.org] for the past 8 years or so, I must say, I'm impressed with their intelligence.

Intelligence is such a vague term -- but here I mean the ability to adapt to new situations and learn. I had a dog growing up, and I would say (without any scientific study) that the cockatiels are at least as intelligent. I've seen them learn to deal with all sorts of new challenges and become comfortable with them. It is amazing given the tiny size of their brain.

For context, I'm not naive enough to think they understand the meanings of the words we've taught them... I've got them calling out "I'm hungry" whenever they hear us getting their food. They're just associating a sound pattern with an experience -- I'm confident they're not understanding symbolic constructs like "I" and "hungry".

Still, they're impressive little things. I've seen them overcome instinctual fears, like learning that a clear glass table was safe to walk on. I've seen them recognize complex imprecise actions, like knowing that any container we lift to our mouth has something to drink in it (despite the anatomical differences).

I've read somewhere that birds' brains have a different structure than mammals' brains. It may be more size efficient somehow. Anyways, I don't know if this bird really gets "zero", but I don't think it's impossible. Birds can be pretty darn smart. Certainly smarter than I would have thought.

Cheers.
• The bird understands NONE. (Score:2, Insightful)

From the article: The scientists also said it will take further study to determine whether Alex--who has been the subject of intelligence and communication tests throughout his life--really understands zero.

Zero and none "are not identical," Pepperberg wrote in a recent email. But since Alex never learned "zero," the researchers said, it's impressive that he started using a word he knew to denote something like it: an absence of a quantity.

Also unclear, though, was whether by "none" he meant no colors, no
• Obligatory... (Score:3, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:25PM (#13028302)
But does the parrot run linu...uh, nevermind...
• B F Skinner and pigeons (Score:3, Insightful)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:27PM (#13028308)
B F Skinner, an early poineer of psychology, did a lot of research with pigeons. One of his demonstrations was that pigeons could be trained to inspect pills (i.e. pharmaceutical pills) much more reliably than human beings. During WW2 he proposed to use pigeons as the guidance system for guided missiles by training them to regognise Japanese ship profiles from different angles. The rest of the technology was probably too primitive to work, but the issue is that neither the pharmaceutical manufacturers nor the generals took him seriously.

There is a great deal (imho) of underestimation of animal intelligence, and it's interesting how many religious people I meet are animal intelligence deniers because of their need to believe that humans have some unique status.

Anybody with a background in experimental psychology who has ever actually worked with a grey parrot, a cockatoo, a macaw or one of the more intelligent dog breeds (e.g. spaniel) will realise that, although it is possible to argue that animal behavior is in some way fundamentally different from ours, the simplest hypothesis is that, in a simpler way, they think the same way that we do. The resemblance of some aspects of behaviour of, say, a two to three year old child and a labrador or cocker spaniel is very marked.

Therefore my own view of this particular bit of research is that it acts as a pointer of how far down the human aptitude chain a bird can get in one particular skill. If you accept that animals, birds and humans have mental ability that fits on a continuum, though with different aspects at different points, this research is interesting not only in itself but in the light it could throw on aspects of human development. Which seems to be what they're saying...

• I have seen a video of this parrot (Score:5, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:30PM (#13028324) Homepage
And it is an incredible animal already without the concept zero. It labels objects by name and properties like color and shape. But also recognize objects which are similar like keys. There is no way for the researcher to hint the solution unconsiously like what happens with the famous counting of horses and dogs (The horse taps the foot X times for the correct answer, but in reality just looks for the right signs in the face or behaviour of the owner (smart too though, sociology (-: )).

The parrot is in this case better then men in understanding language. The researchers can not talk "parrot language", but this bird can talk human language. What would be great for research if they are able to find out if this parrot has a concept of language and can translate some more familiar environment things (like trees instead of keys) and see if that translates to other parrots in the wild.
• Re:I have seen a video of this parrot (Score:3, Informative)

For those interested, the horse to which the parent poster refers is Clever Hans [wikipedia.org]
• maybe the parrot is using another concept (Score:2, Insightful)

- "where's the cube?"
- "hurry up with those cubes!"
- "i can't find it."
- "next question! I want to win another cookie."

It's easy to say people were late discovering zero, but a neanderthal yelling "where's my !*#&*\$?! brontosaurus steak?" (1) sure had a concept of absence of something. The concept of zero is about equations and using location of a digit in a number to indicate increasing amounts.

(1) in comics, it's almost mandatory that dinosaurs and neanderthals live in the same period.
• Arrr! Pirate parrots (Score:3, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @05:55PM (#13028485)
Great. Next thing, they're going to be squawking "Fractions of eight!"

Doesn't anyone realise these creatures are only an opposable thumb away from slaughtering us in our beds? Stop teaching them stuff!

• Mr. Bean and the empty tree (Score:5, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @06:51PM (#13028819) Homepage
We own an african gray, 5 years, Mr. Bean. He already has a 50+ word vocabulary, can mock many of my 27,000 mp3s (with an emphasis toward trumpets/horns and bird noise techno like BT's Lullaby for Gaeia), rings the phone/oven/microwave/doorbell to get our attention, and can distinguish between a number of different objects and containers we use as a game/rewardSystem. He says hello when we come home or wake him up. He says goodbye when you get your keys to leave the house. He knows how to request that he be let out, fed, pet, and showered. He's practically a child of ours. We jokingly call him our "autistic 5 year old." My wife and I have followed and enjoyed Alex's progress for years.

So, I'm amazed at the avian capability, but surprised at humanity's clunky, late, and worshipful grasp of zero. I read, "Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea" by Charles Seife, and it took us a hell of a long time to get a simple survival idea to cross from instinct into formalized intellect.

I'm not a behavioral science PhD. Yet, How surprising is it that any animal can recognize zero in respect to color? How many yellow fruits are on that green tree? "None, next tree." How many gray mates are there on the brown branches? "None, next area." We have to think that the loser parrots who hung out at the tree with zero fruit didn't do so well in the evolution crap shoot.

Zero is not so mystically intelligent as we think. Our belly and lungs definitely understand zero. But zero came late to our number systems. Our formalization of zero might well be a mystical leap of intellect, but only history will prove if we are as smart as we think we are. There are a lot of zeros out there we aren't grasping; zero dodos left, zero ozone defense in places, and zero vaccines for modern plagues.

I look forward to the day when Alex and Mr. Bean learn to solve calculus. Then he can exclaim that the limit of e^x as x approaches infinity is infinity. Negative numbers and imaginary numbers and he'll be doing better than most undergrads.

It should be noted Mr. Bean's QWERTY typing is abominable. So his C programming is not as strong as other posts might have suggested.

• Veruca Salt (Score:3, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @08:15PM (#13029302)
• "Birdbrain" a much misunderstood concept (Score:3, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @08:44PM (#13029478) Homepage
Birds are smart. Parrots especially so. So this comes as no surprise to me, who lives out in the sticks and observes many kinds of bird going about their daily lives, several species of parrot included. Clearly bird intelligence is a reality to anyone who has actually bothered to observe them, but equally clearly it's an intelligence quite different from ours. This might seem obvious but it seems that one of the central paradigms of biology since the renaissance is that "intelligence" must mean human intelligence, and anything else is not worthy of the name. Indeed, I have seen it repeated quite often that birds and other animals cannot be conscious and are some kind of automata. This is obviously baloney! Ask any cat or dog owner.

Until science can accept that intelligence is a sliding scale and comes in degrees, we are unlikely to make much progress, it seems to me. There is no "sudden breakthrough" to consciousness once brains reach a certain size, birds are as conscious as they need to be to be a bird. Likewise cats and dogs.

Here are some amazing feats I've observed in birds: A gull hovering at about 30-40 ft above the ground in a high wind above heavy traffic (the flight control alone this involves is pretty impressive) but the bird is scanning the ground - a noisy field of gravelled tarmac and moving cars - and can pick out among this noisy field a dot of matter on the ground that it knows to be edible. Consider the image processing task this is - we cannot even begin to write a program to do this, let alone "know" that the one dot among millions is edible. The bird will then swoop down among the traffic and pick up the morsel without breaking a sweat.

Australian Magpies in a colony in my garden regularly communicate among themselves with different sounds. These sounds have definite and distinct meanings; they understand them, we do not. One one occasion a particular squawk from the nesting tree brought a sudden urgent rush of Magpies from all over the area flying in to assist - it was obvious from the very direct and unusually effortful flying that this was an emergency. I have no idea what was up, but they did! Not only intelligent but socially organised and with a meaningful language.

I have made many similar observations in passing. When you consider that the human genome is not as large as we thought, and the higher birds' genome is not much smaller, it seems to me that science has a lot of rethinking to do on the subject of brain size and intelligence. And surely the time has come to drop the arrogance of assuming trhe superiority of human intelligence - simple observation will give you plenty of data that refutes this hypothesis. Thus the parrot in the article is really fairly unexceptional - the difference here is that somebody has thought it worthwhile (spuriously in my opinion) to teach it to use its brain in a way it probably doesn't bother to or need to in nature. That its brain is capable of this tends to show me that what birds do with their brains in nature must be equally impressive, and a darn sight more useful for the bird. Contrary to the popular myth, our brains are not 3/4 unused - they are 100% used (well, perhaps not in some of us). And that goes for every living creature too - evolution gives us all exactly the brain we need to survive in the environment we live in.
• No big deal (Score:3, Funny)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @09:35PM (#13029712) Homepage Journal
No big deal. My cat knows the concept of zero too. And she lets me know that every time her food dish has zero kibbles in it.
• smart birds (Score:3, Interesting)

<yaweh_melts_the_mountain@yahoo.com> on Sunday July 10, 2005 @10:17PM (#13029880)
i saw a crow drop a walnut into an intersection from a street light. the crow then flew down to the side walk, WAITED FOR THE LIGHT TO CHANGE, then walked into the intersection to collect the edibles from the car-crushed walnut. he let out a loud in disapproval of how quickly the light had changed again as he was forced to retreat from the street and his score.
• Prairie Dog Communication (Score:3, Interesting)

on Sunday July 10, 2005 @10:47PM (#13029996) Journal
Alex has zero and little prairie dogs - the universal lunch - have a complete language, including words for color!!!

http://www.prairiedog.info/Prairie_Dog_Communicati on.htm [prairiedog.info]

"Basically, prairie dogs are a universal lunch item. Everybody likes to feed on prairie dogs," says animal behaviorist Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University. And the prairie dogs know that. When a predator approaches they emit a series of warning chirps.

Prairie dogs can talk. At least that's the startling conclusion reached by Slobodchikoff. His research flies in the face of conventional scientific thinking on the subject of animal intelligence. He maintains that prairie dogs can convey complex information through a language more sophisticated than that of any animal ever studied. Slobodchikoff has documented more than 100 prairie dog words all revolving around the same subject: predators. From his observation tower on the edge of a prairie dog colony outside Flagstaff, Slobodchikoff operates a directional microphone, a tape recorder and a video camera. From this vantage point, he can spot intruders, such as hawks, cats, dogs, and men and record the alarm calls these potential threats trigger in the prairie dogs.

"Each time we do experiments I'm surprised because each time even I don't think these animals have the capabilities that our experiments show them to have," says Slobodchikoff.

Back at his lab he digitizes his audio field tape into sonograms which show what each alarm call "looks" like, complete with adjectives.
The professor has discovered that prairie dogs use adjectives to differentiate objects. For example, they can describe the color of clothes on a human and whether he is tall or short. They can also describe how fast a man is moving or whether he is carrying a gun. And there's evidence that the animals can remember that specific person for up to two months.

Each prairie dog colony appears to have its own dialect, much like New Yorkers sound different from Southerners. But researchers believe the basic language is the same. That is, a prairie dog from Arizona could talk to a prairie dog from New Mexico.

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