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?