Friday, February 29, 2008

A Vending Machine for Crows

I quote from http://www.boingboing.net/2008/02/29/ted-2008-crow-vendin.html

Technology hacker Joshua Klein built a vending machine that teaches crows to deposit coins they find into a special vending machine that dispenses peanuts. He has been studying crows for over ten years and has learned that they are very intelligent. Their brain/body weight ratios are similar to chimpanzees. He's showing a video of how a crow learned to use a tool to pull an object out of of a tube. It's impressive.

Crows are smart and adaptable. For example, they drop nuts on streets so cars run over them, then wait for the traffic signal to change so they can pick up the food. Other crows who see this happen quickly learn how to do this for themselves.

His machine uses Skinnerian training. He put coins and peanuts around the machine. The crows eat the peanut on the feeder tray. Then Joshua took away the nuts and left coins in the feeder tray. It pisses off the crows. They sweep the coins around with their beaks, looking for food. When a coin accidentally drops into the slot, it dispenses a peanut. Next, Joshua took away the coins. The crows learned to find coins elsewhere and deposit them.

So now he wants to train crows for search and rescue, picking up trash, and other mutually beneficial tasks.


I think this is a brilliant way of profiting from clever wildlife. :-) We need to make sure we don't favor crows over other, more sensitive species, but imagine the possibilities of this -- automated corvid litter collection? Crow-assisted smoking bans? Ravens thieving sensitive documents from political offices? (Oh, wait, that's been done already!)

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