A crow snowboarding on a jamjar lid

Snowboarding Crow

When I was a kid, I was pretty much taught that animals weren’t like us humans at all: they didn’t really think or feel the same as we do, that they were kind of like clockwork, acting and reacting only, not truly thinking.

That never really sat well with me. I couldn’t really understand how an animal could appear to be happy, sad, hungry, frightened or angry and yet not actually be those things. Or, more correctly, I wasn’t sure how you could tell that those apparent emotions weren’t really there.

People who said their pets were happy or sad or wanted this or that were looked down on, treated as if they were projecting emotions as if onto a doll or a stuffed toy. Some people certainly do just project their own internal wishes onto their pets, and their pets usually suffer for it (I’m looking directly at you, vegans – cats and dogs are obligate carnivores and cannot live healthily without meat-based protein).

But then dogs were studied in close detail, using such advanced techniques as MRI’s, and the perhaps not-so-surprising truth came out: dogs really do love their owners. It’s not just food and security, dogs really do have wants and needs far beyond “hungry” and “sleepy”.

And then there’s the work on crows. It turns out crows are really, really intelligent. Like, fiendishly intelligent. They are smart, sociable, tool using creatures – as you can see from the gif header: that is a crow which has found what appears to be a jar lid, and has taken it to the top of a snow-covered roof so it can jump on and snowboard down on top of. For fun.

Not impressed? Well, here’s two more gifs I found on imgur.com

That’s right, those crows are rolling around in the snow, purely for shits and giggles. They’re having fun. They’re playing. No reward, no training, no coaxing.

I’ll always remember when I heard a TED talk about crows:

In this video, a researcher named Joshua Klein talks about how they set up various “tests” for crows, to see how clever the little buggers were. If I recall it correctly, one test was a piece of wire and a basket of tasty grubs at the bottom perspex tube too long for the crow to fish the grubs out of directly. They wanted to see how long it took the crow to independently or with help come up with the idea of spearing the grubs.

Of course, that’s not quite what happened. The result was that the crow took a good long look at the grubs, took the piece of wire, bent it into a hook and stole the entire basket in one go.

Why is this important? Well, quite apart from the importance the research itself holds, it has huge ramifications for AI.

See, if you’re at all interested in AI, you’ve probably heard the question of whether AI can even be possible. You’ve heard people wonder whether matter can be made to think (which… is a pretty stupid question, if you ask me), whether there is something special about “organic” chemistry which makes life happen (care to explain what that special complexity is? No?) or whether artificial intelligence would be real intelligence, or some sort of p-zombie. Not that I can tell the difference between a real sentience and a p-zombie – all I know is that animals were thought to be p-zombies, and, well… the latest research tells us what every pet owner already knew: they’re not. Not, at least, any more or less than we ourselves are.

And if animals can be as much the thinking, feeling, playful, intelligent, tool-using, sociable animals that we humans are, it certainly deals a great blow for the superiority complex that is the “life is reserved for special beings” viewpoint.

What do you think?


4 responses »

  1. Calum Chace says:

    Great pics! Those dinosaurs: they’re not quite done yet, are they!

  2. I think that any person who has ever looked down upon someone for treating other animals as feeling, conscious beings is a fool. And that those who argue that artificial beings will end up as philosophical zombies devoid of qualia are foolish in exactly the same way, for exactly the same reasons.

    There is a cat that comes to visit me. Specifically me – one of my spouses desperately wants the cat to love her, but it has chosen me for some reason. It does not come for food, because I never feed it. It does not come for warmth, because I never let it in the house – I am desperately allergic to cats. The cat comes because it wants to be near me. It literally has no other reason.

    It jumps up on my lap the instant I sit down and puts it’s throat in my hand. It wants to be scratched, and petted, and simply held. If I don’t sit down, it mews at me, it follows me, it shows eagerness at seeing me. It will come from blocks away to visit should it spy our van coming home.

    The only thing I do for it, is spend a few minutes interacting as a friend. But this seems to be utterly important to this cat. Afterwards, I have to wash my hands lest welts swell up on my skin. I have to treat these interactions as biohazard situations. Yet… it loves me so damn much, and in return, I just cannot ignore it. It just wants to be near me.

    Not for one second do I attribute any other purpose to the cat’s behavior than genuine affection. It likes me. I like it too, truth be told. I wish I was not so damn allergic.

    Friendship. Between two different species, but no less than real friendship. Spontaneous, initiated by the cat, but maintained by both of us. This cat has affection and that affection is real. Of course it is real.

    To say otherwise is the height of arrogance and ignorance. Life feels.

    And one day, I feel utterly certain, a similar story will be told about artificial life – whether it should look like a cat… or something beyond imagination.

  3. Calum Chace says:

    Nice story, Diane, but have you considered that the cat knows you are allergic, and it’s motivation is pure devilment? I’m only half-kidding.

    And by the way, “one of my spouses?”

  4. dmayoss says:

    Edit: For those who are interested, dogs aren’t obligate carnivores, but they are still carnivores. Vegan diets for dogs don’t work. Please don’t starve your dogs to death by forcing your own beliefs on a dog.

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