Conversation with a Parrot (2005-01-05)
About two months ago I heard about a project at the MIT Media Lab to develop a web browser for parrots. The smarter kinds of parrots can get very bored if they are home for hours with nobody to play with, so the idea makes sense. By coincidence I ran into an old AI Lab acquaintance who was involved in the project. He told me that the Media Lab had run out of money and had shut the project down, but he was still in contact with Dr. Pepperberg, and she was still in the Boston area. When I told her how I like to play recorder for parrots (when they enjoy it), she wanted me to come to her lab and visit. I found a friend to drive me out there. That morning a storm was expected, but I checked around and we all decided the plan was still on.
The parrot lab is a rather small room--with five people there and three parrots on different perches, one has to move around objects to get across the room.
As soon as I had taken my coat off and put the computer down, I decided to try playing recorder. Alex and Wart seemed interested, perhaps enjoying it, but the third parrot, Griffin, acted very upset and needed to be stroked and comforted by Dr Pepperberg. This brought an end to the idea of playing recorder for them. Griffin is very neurotic; he pulls out and chews his feathers when she is away traveling.
Alex, who is much older and has learned far more language and reasoning skills, generally can answer a question like "What color square?" or "What color three?" (he can recognize the shape of the number three). He's now learning how to answer "What color smaller (or bigger) number?" where he is required to pick the smaller or larger of two numbers he is shown, and say what color that is. Most recently he has learned to answer "none" when there's no valid answer, such as when the two numbers are equal. But he was not in a good mood that day, and did not want to show us these skills.
He said, "Want cork nut!", using his name for almonds. I said it was too bad I hadn't known, or I could have brought some. Dr Pepperberg said that she had almonds on hand, but Alex had to do work in order to get any. He had been refusing all day to answer questions. So she gave him another chance: she handed him a piece of green wool and said, "What matter?" Alex answered immediately "Wool". She said "What color wool?" and he said "Yellow" first, which he knew was not correct, then "Green". (At this point Wart also said "Wool", which is one of the few words he has learned to use.) Then she gave Alex a piece of nut, but he didn't like it. He likes raw nuts, but the store was out of them that day, so she had bought roasted nuts. They don't taste the same to me, and apparently not to Alex either.
At this point Alex started asking for various things to eat. He asked for a cork, was given one, and chewed on it for a while. (He doesn't really eat that, it is just fun to chew.) He said "Want wheat" and was given some pieces of shredded wheat to eat. Meanwhile, Wart was eating dry pasta; but he liked it a little bit moist. So he put each piece into his water cup for just the right amount of time, then took it out to eat it. Then Wart tried to climb down one of the tripod legs of his perch, to see if he could reach any caramel-popcorn in a big tub nearby. He couldn't quite make it, so I asked if it were ok to give him some. She said yes, so I handed him a piece. He took it very gently from my fingers, then as he began to eat it, half of the kernel fell down. (Now I can say I have witnessed a parrot do kernel hacking ;-). I was expecting that, and caught it. After a few minutes, when he finished the first half, I gave him the other half.
Towards the end of the visit, Alex started getting downright ornery. He began asking for various things--"Want cork", "Want wheat", "Want pa(sta)", "Want some water", "Want chair", "Want to go back"--but as he was given each thing, he dropped it or rejected it. I don't know whether he was angry or playing a callous game.
Dr Pepperberg attributed Alex's contrary mood to the fact that a storm was coming, and that might be true; but I wonder if he felt cheated because the nuts he was given, when he deserved a reward, tasted wrong.
She and some friends are still working on their computer interface for parrots. Rather than use a touch screen, which would only enable the parrot to select from a menu, they are using a device that makes it possible to determine positions and motion, hoping to be able to make games for parrots to play. However, she said that the system is not reliable enough to leave a parrot alone with it. This is because they developed it on Microsoft Windows, and parrots don't know how to reboot when they get the Blue Screen of Death. I promised to find people who would help them switch to GNU/Linux.
When it was time to go, they put each parrot in its cage. Alex realized that people were annoyed with him and said, "I'm sorry--I love you--Please be good." (He also said, "Go get dinner", which is what Irene was about to do.) She said that Alex is not capable of feeling contrition, that he is like a two-year-old human child, but he knows he's supposed to say "I'm sorry" when he has done something wrong.
Dr Pepperberg left a tenured professorship to work at the MIT Media Lab, so when they fired her she had to scramble. Her lab has funding for just this year, and they are trying to raise funds from the public to keep it going. You can get more info at www.alexfoundation.org.