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Alex, The Brainy Parrot Who Knows About Zero

timothy posted more than 9 years ago | from the puppet-on-a-string dept.

Science 435

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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zero (5, Funny)

DerKwisatzHaderach (881451) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028037)

zeroth post!

Re:zero (3, Funny)

Cyberax (705495) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028124)

This parrot can be a good C programmer! Maybe even better than those chimps [newtechusa.com] .

Re:zero (5, Funny)

Compholio (770966) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028176)

zeroth post!

So does that mean the parrot has you beat since he understands the concept of zero and you don't? ;)

Bah (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028043)

I bet you'd all go ga-ga if they got a parrot to realize the concept of complex numbers too! Let me know when a parrot comes up with the concept of sedenions [wikipedia.org] , and then I'll be moderately impressed (-;

PS. Slashdot editors, please use your formidable editing powers (and what a rich history of fine editing you have!) to stop advertising Piquepaille's weblog.

PPS. For your general amusement, here's an amusing article from The Onion [theonion.com] .

Re:Bah (1)

koreaman (835838) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028051)

hey...this really is an accomplishment. This isn't people we're talking about, it's [i]parrots[/i]. Even if they did have the intellectual capacity to grasp "sedenions", they certainly haven't had a high enough level of education.

Re:Bah (0, Offtopic)

koreaman (835838) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028079)

Oops... I've spent too long on stupid bulletin boards where you can't use HTML. s/[i]parrots[/i]/parrots/

How I will read it: (1, Interesting)

jpardey (569633) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028060)

Rather than downloading the ads, I will use wget to download the html, and download the pictures. No money to RP.

Re:How I will read it: (1)

iamdrscience (541136) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028112)

Not really, his logs will still count it as a hit, increasing his total number of hits which will cause more people to be interested in placing an ad through his site through Blogads [blogads.com] . Although I suppose it would keep him from making money off of Google Ads, but well, you could have kept him from making money off that by just not clicking on them.

Really? (1)

jpardey (569633) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028266)

I would expect money not to come from reading the HTML, but from requesting the images... oh well, better than nothing. I should get to that...

PS (1)

jpardey (569633) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028281)

I meant the advertiser's images

Basic Skills != Moral Skills (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028085)

Basic skills can be learned by many warm-blooded animals, but how do we teach moral skills (e.g. compassion) [phrusa.org] ?

There are examples of porpoises that defend human swimmers from sharks.

On the other hand, the Chinese are "smarter" than the porpoises but support the brutal occupation of Tibet.

How can we teach moral skills to the Chinese? What is missing from the Chinese psyche but is present in the mind of a porpoise?

Ah (2, Interesting)

PunkOfLinux (870955) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028046)

That's good. Now if only they could fix the problems and not just the symptoms.

Aged (1)

fembots (753724) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028057)

So parrots grow grey hair [aol.com] just like us too?

Re:Aged (1)

bryan986 (833912) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028073)

that is from the parrot being stressed out "when will these scientist fools stop shouting nothing at me"

Re:Aged (-1, Offtopic)

Fjornir (516960) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028088)

Why are you advertising that 70% of people thought your game sucked?

Hubris (5, Interesting)

chadamir (665725) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028059)

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 (5, Funny)

iamzack (830561) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028090)

I hope you're not a member of PETA, unless it's the People for Eating Tastey Animals variety.

STOP THIS IMMEDIATELY. (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028170)

It has been decreed that no one is to seriously discuss any subject with which "Roland Piquepaille" has been linked. The only permitted discussion for this article, as decreed by the code of the Horde, is relentless and asinine whining about "Roland Piquepaille". Your post is as such not acceptable. Halt discussing this subject immediately, and join us in ceaselessly whining about the free service that slashdot.org is providing. If you do not comply, we have coordinating resources by which you will be moderated down to -1 in short order.

The Slashdot Horde has spoken. Are you contradicting the Horde?

Re:Hubris (1)

DigiShaman (671371) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028182)

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 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028190)

All these experiments show is that if you do extensive training over a large period of time you can *almost* simulate some basic thing that humans just do within a few years of being born, or even right from the beginning.

On the same vein, you could make a really complex AI script that *almost* simulates some real world intelligent being, but I think most of us would agree that it isn't the real thing. Same with animals.

Re:Hubris... Yes... (1)

fishlet (93611) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028191)

And I for one welcome our new feline masters...

Re:Hubris (1)

JChung2006 (894379) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028298)

I agree with your general sentiment that we underestimate animals and overvalue ourselves, but let's not get hasty with our conclusions. Animals don't have complex emotions and aren't capable of the "same types of understanding" as humans. It's more that we overvalue ourselves than that we underestimate animals; we're not nearly as evolved as we would like to think.

Re:Hubris (1)

northcat (827059) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028301)

In spite of all this, eating animals is still right. Right? Especially after evolution (being that most people use "survival of the fittest" to justify eating animals) has given us excellent brains, using which we can survive and flourish without eating animals. And also after we have scientifically advanced from our meat-eating ancestors - enough to stay healthy without meat.

Re:Hubris (1)

HardCase (14757) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028326)

In spite of all this, eating animals is still right. Right?

Damn right! I love animals, especially the tasty ones!

Alex the Brainy Parrot says.. (4, Funny)

rylin (688457) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028061)

Alex The Brainy Parrot says:
Roland Piquepaaaaaaaille went from <none> to $500 in three minutes.

Polly... (2, Funny)

CountDoodu (897708) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028069)

Instead of polly want a cracker, maybe we will start saying polly want to do a math problem?

Re:Polly... (5, Funny)

TRS80NT (695421) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028188)

Oh, I get it. polly-nomials!

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

Kagura (843695) | more than 9 years ago | (#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) using English labels was tested on comprehension of these labels, which is crucial for numerical competence . He was, without training, asked "What color/object [number]?" for collections of various simultaneously presented quantities (e.g., subsets of 4, 5, and 6 blocks of 3 different colors; subsets of 2, 4, and 6 keys, corks, and sticks). Accuracy was greater than 80% and was unaffected by array quantity, mass, or contour. His results demonstrated numerical comprehension competence comparable to that of chimpanzees and very young children. He also demonstrated knowledge of absence of quantity, using "none" to designate zero.

Re:Article: The Brainy Parrot Who Knows About Zero (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028224)

It would be REALLY cool if this and the rest of the "Alex" research done by Irene Pepperberg could be replicated in other African Gray Parrots, or studied mechanistically. She's made herself a bit of a living training one bird on cognitive tasks, and failed in training a number of others.

parrots islam (-1, Troll)

ANTI ISLAMS CRUSADOR (898729) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028076)

I wonder if muslims have already discovered the concept of zero?

Re:parrots islam (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028104)

Who do you think gave the concept of the Zero to the Europeans, along with the current system of 10 digit numerals?

(I'm assuming, of course, that your post was not intended to be ironic. If it was, my Irony Meter just blew itself to bits.)

Re:parrots islam (2, Informative)

cygnusx (193092) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028129)

The Hindus [wikipedia.org] ?

Re:parrots islam (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028147)

Who passed them to arabs who in turn passed them to europeans along with their symbols for numbers (replacing old -and inadequate- roman numbers).

muslims discovered "zero" before anyone else (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028154)

they discovered it in 7th century and have been trying to reduce the number of non-muslims in the world to ZERO since then

Symptom, not the cause. (3, Insightful)

iamdrscience (541136) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028078)

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. (4, Insightful)

garcia (6573) | more than 9 years ago | (#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" (2, Insightful)

jfengel (409917) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028195)

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 objects. It comes with at least some basic arithmetic, like 0+x=x, x-0=x, and perhaps even x*0=0. Without that, I'm also tempted to dismiss it as a "silly parrot trick".

Personally, I think it's easy to anthropomorphize a creature with a human voice. I'd expect many other creatures, especially mammals, to be smarter than birds. Biologically speaking it's not much different from a chicken. So I'd like to see a lot more research before I'm prepared to grant the bird more than some lucky guesswork.

Re:I'm still gonna go with "silly parrot trick" (1)

Ford Prefect (8777) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028249)

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:Symptom, not the cause. (3, Insightful)

rustbear (852420) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028153)

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 call understanding is for you, a "dumb you trick", for me a "dumb me trick", same as for the parrot and autistic kids. It's just that non-autistic people may be able to encode more and remember less.

Re:Symptom, not the cause. (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028278)

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't know. And you probably don't care. Do you need to know about its possible drug interactions, the metabolic pathways involved, the pharmacokinetics and dynamics? All you will ever know is that Tylenol makes headaches go away. You can tell someone to take tylenol if they have a headache - you tell them essentially to mimic your behaviour. A doctor can also tell someone to take Tylenol. The difference between you and the doctor is that the doctor knows why s/he is saying it because s/he has studied it and understood it (hopefully!).

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.

The problem is, the formula by itself is useless unless you are able to apply it. I will stick to another medical example (it's a field I am familiar with). Look at all the drug commercials on TV. People are being "brainwashed" into wanting this or that medication. They go into the doctor's office demanding that medication because they have one of the dozens of symptoms listed in the commercial. So the people have been given "part" of the knowledge (ie the pill name) and an association with a symptom. But just knowing that doesn't qualify them as experts in self-diagnosis, pathology or pharmacology. Back to your example - the formula alone is not enough.

Think of it like a context. If I take one word out of a paragraph, chances are you will still be able to understand the meaning of the paragraph. That word is your formula. The bigger the paragraph, the less important a single word becomes. Yes you need individual words to be able to construct a paragraph but if you deny me access to a single word I am sure I will be able to get my meaning across with different words. The formula, then, is not so important.

In my example above, of the patient demanding a medication from his/her physician - only the doc, through years of training, is able to look at the big picture, and take many variables into account, to determine if the use of the medication is justified or not.

I used a medical example but the same could be applied to any field of specialized human knowledge.

Confucious (sp?) once said: The eyes cannot see what the mind does not know about.

Re:Symptom, not the cause. (1)

NovaX (37364) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028334)

Please read the chinese room [stanford.edu] argument.

Re:Symptom, not the cause. (1)

chris_eineke (634570) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028161)

could teach a four year old how to recite the quadratic equation, it doesn't mean they can use it.


Sadly, that's the state of affairs nowadays, isn't it? You have to know this and that, but you don't need to know about the principle behind this and that, because that's what other people will learn -- oh, and by the way... don't bother with the principles. You wouldn't understand them anyways, because it's too advanced for you. Don't even try to go there. No, really. Get out of here. We don't need no smart people around here. Get a life. Become a office drone. Get laid. Strip search at the door.

Have fun.

Re:Symptom, not the cause. (1)

servognome (738846) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028254)

You have to know this and that, but you don't need to know about the principle behind this and that, because that's what other people will learn -- oh, and by the way... don't bother with the principles.

As the world gets more complex this will happen more and more. While some basic concepts need to be understood, others we can use without fully understanding. As specialization increases we will have layers of knowledge.
For example should all programmers study years to understand the physics of microprocessors before they are allowed to code? Do little kids need to know how to compute pi to the 10,000th digit before they are allowed to compute the area of a circle?

Re:Symptom, not the cause. (1)

chris_eineke (634570) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028279)

For example should all programmers study years to understand the physics of microprocessors before they are allowed to code?
No, but they should know how a microprocessor will interpret their code.

Do little kids need to know how to compute pi to the 10,000th digit before they are allowed to compute the area of a circle?
No, but they should know that pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

Re:Symptom, not the cause. (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028164)

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 agree, behavioural scientists are kinda creepy... I agree with you that the stupid parrot doing a trick doesn't mean the parrot knows what he is doing.

Re:Symptom, not the cause. (5, Informative)

Jesrad (716567) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028171)

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. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028221)

And your talking is just a person trick. I'm ignoring you from now on.

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

MisaDaBinksX4evah (889652) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028263)

So, prove to everyone that your sentience is based on more than just a bunch of automated and learned responses to stimuli.

READY, SET, GO!

No way is it a parrot trick (4, Informative)

jd (1658) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028320)

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.

Re:Symptom, not the cause. (1)

northcat (827059) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028337)

I'll take the word of the people at the University of Waltham over yours any day. People need to stop acting like they know better than the experts. It's "the expert is not always right", not "the expert is always wrong". Criticism of the "experts" once in a while is not wrong. But every time I see a science article on slashdot, everyone is trying to say, one way or the other, that the article and the scientist/experts are wrong. Quit trying to make yourself look good so desperately.

That's not new... (5, Funny)

tbuckner (861471) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028089)

What about that raven which understood the concept of 'nevermore'?

Smart bird (2, Interesting)

gunner800 (142959) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028093)

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... (4, Funny)

iamdrscience (541136) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028094)

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.

He's Not Counting (4, Funny)

DanielMarkham (765899) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028099)

He's pining for the fjords

Re:He's Not Counting (1)

FidelCatsro (861135) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028130)

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 (1)

lheal (86013) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028250)

He's just sleeping.

Re:He's Not Counting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028280)

PININ' FOR THE FJORDS?!? What kind of talk is that? Why did 'e start countin' cubes the moment I got 'im 'ome?

FTA (4, Informative)

Hao Wu (652581) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028101)

"For more information, you can buy this article for $11.95."

Thank you for the offer, Timothy.

hmmm (4, Insightful)

slashdotnickname (882178) | more than 9 years ago | (#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 (3, Interesting)

Khyber (864651) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028181)

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" word. Give the book a read, you'll love it.

ISBN 0-14-029647-6

Re:hmmm (3, Insightful)

Petrushka (815171) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028225)

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 (1)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028109)

Here [bulldotshit.com] . He can't count too good though, Norwegian blues stun easily....

Duh (0)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028110)

So the parrot can signal when the tray is empty. What's the big deal with THAT? My dog has been bringing me his feeding bowl at mealtimes for years, but I'm not making any claim that he understands how mathematically significant this is. The only math my dog understands is that I am there to "add" food to his bowl, and he is there to "subtract" it. "Zero" food makes him upset at certain times of the day when he expects to see positive quantities.

I didn't RTFA (because I don't need to give anything to Piquepaille), but it looks like the same old meaningless crap we have come to expect from this guy. Nothing to see here...

You're a troll. (1)

HEbGb (6544) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028240)

Try asking your dog what color of which there are five objects. The parrot correctly said "none".

It's fine to be unimpressed with Piquepaille, but this is real stuff in the research.

Re:You're a troll. (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028328)

Try asking your dog what color of which there are five objects. The parrot correctly said "none".

Has it occurred to you that the parrot might be able to recognize the shape created by the letters NONE? Or are you going to tell me that not only this parrot knows the concept of the number ZERO, but it can also read and understand English? If trolling is pointing out the basic flaw in an argument then yes, I am a troll. I know that people who disagree shouldn't be in this New World Order, but I refuse to stay quiet when I see such obvious BS touted as "truth".

Re:verbatim (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028329)

I'll bite, although I'm not the original author of the post. Do you know how many times research has been faked to get a study released. You are under valuing the human condition, the ability to read into exactly what we want. You show me a study in which the situation is duplicated under the exact same and varying situations sixteen times and then we can work on a hypothesis. Until then, this is just weak.

I'm sure that one could condition their dog to respond with a single bark and even vary the sound of the bark. Animals often infer human capabilities by watching what we do in everyday life. A dog is "somewhat" human not as a prerequist to its own condition and consciousness but rather a learned behavior. Similar to how humans groupthink and pass on conditioned morals within a structural framework. It is our identity and construct.

If, however, this experiment is repeated with successful results and it is "learned" that the bird is capable of basic association (not really a math problem) than I stand corrected. Until then I will assume that it is likely a hoax or in response to a conditioned prompt.

P.S.
Not everyone that disagrees with you is a troll. In fact stop with the troll references, they sound so geeky. Its about as bad as the noob word, which is just plain silly.

Re:Duh (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028309)

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.

Alex performed well on this, with no training, for dozens of trials, the researchers recounted. But then he balked. Alex started ignoring questions, or giving wrong answers, seemingly deliberately. He seemed to enjoy the experimenters' frustrated reactions, they said.

There was evidence, they added, that his stubbornness stemmed from boredom with the rewards he had been getting for right answers. The researchers found some more interesting toys to give as rewards. After two weeks of obstructionism, Alex grudgingly returned to the game, though he occasionally seemed to lapse back.

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.

RTFA! (1)

Frodo Crockett (861942) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028349)

So the parrot can signal when the tray is empty.

You need to RTFA. The parrot can look at a tray full of objects and signal when there are zero objects of a given color. You're probably not intending to troll, but posting blatantly incorrect statements has the same effect as trolling.

Roland The Parrot. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028111)

Reading an article, and repeating it word by word. Then posting at slashdot, in hopes to get some crackers.

Very Intelligent (3, Interesting)

Jeet81 (613099) | more than 9 years ago | (#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 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028333)

Yep, my ex-wife had one. He was very smart, but I still have several scares on my hands from him. I am looking at one on my thumb right now. Been there for 10 years. For the rest of my life I get to think of her and her fucking bird!

Brainy Holand Piquepaille grasps concept of $0 (5, Funny)

koreaman (835838) | more than 9 years ago | (#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!

Re:Brainy Holand Piquepaille grasps concept of $0 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028236)

Oh you are another asshole korean, never mind. I don't like Roland, but I think I hate stupid non-english speaking koreans even more. Watch out your grammer dude. Don't use ol' British grammer here.

Re:Brainy Holand Piquepaille grasps concept of $0 (1)

koreaman (835838) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028242)

I'm not korean. The way I got the name is a long story that I don't feel like telling.

Re:Brainy Holand Piquepaille grasps concept of $0 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028343)

Watch out your grammer dude. Don't use ol' British grammer here.

Watch out your spelling dude. Don't use ol' made-up spelling here.

Yeah, but can it do negatives? (4, Funny)

ettlz (639203) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028131)

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? (2, Funny)

Petrushka (815171) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028204)

Can you? Go on, count to 5i.

Re:Yeah, but can it do negatives? (1)

Anthony (4077) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028330)

Only in his imagination :-). Mod parent funny!

Re:Yeah, but can it do negatives? (1)

ettlz (639203) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028339)

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

None vs. Unknown (2, Insightful)

Bloater (12932) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028138)

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 (5, Informative)

syukton (256348) | more than 9 years ago | (#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 (1)

gardyloo (512791) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028314)

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

Can't... stop... laughing...

Alex probably knows the Holy Grail.. (4, Funny)

Man in Spandex (775950) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028151)

Professor: Alex, tell me what color 4?
Alex: Blue, no Yelllllllllloooooooooooooooowww

HEADLINES! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028198)

Slashdot needs headline help!

Alex, the brainy parrot who understands zero

instead of knows about zero.

try it.

Help learning-disabled children.. (1)

E IS mC(Square) (721736) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028202)

>>'bird intelligence' might also help autistic and other learning-disabled children 'who have trouble learning language and counting skills.

Yeah, turn them into Alex the parrot.

Scientists got their hopes up (0, Redundant)

koreaman (835838) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028207)

These same scientists [slashdot.org] have retracted their earlier statements in record time. They are currently developing various theories to explain how they could have possibly thought Holand Piquepaille was becoming an altruist.

One scientist blames Bob Matthews, the lead scientist, and was recorded saying, "I have no idea what the fuck my colleage Bob was thinking. I mean, Holand Piquepaille, an altruist? There's no way." This seems to be a common sentiment. This school of thought points to massive quantites of acid, crack, pot, and plain ol' alcohol in Matthews' bloodstream.

A completely different faction thinks that, as speculated in my previous post, Holand simply grasped a similar post. "It could have been anything," the faction leader said, "But the highest likelihood is something along the lines of either 'The size of my penis' or 'number of people who don't hate me'."

Keep posted for breaking news as this story develops.

And the winner is... (1)

Baloo Ursidae (29355) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028210)

And the winner of the 2005 Ig Nobel prize in the field of psychology goes to...

Is Alex going to.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028237)

publish his findings on his human subjects?

My CAT (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028251)

I bet my cat wouldn't even notice the difference in taste.... Dumb cat!

Next on Slashdot... (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028259)

...the story of W, the man who knows zero...

Dumb Roland (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#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 (2, Interesting)

localman (111171) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028276)

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.

To parrot the old phrase... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028277)

I, for one, welcome our new bird overlords.

The bird understands NONE. (2, Insightful)

endlessoul (741131) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028288)

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 objects or something else.


So, in effect, the bird "knows" of 'none,' not 'Zero,' according to Mr. Pepperberg.

Sorry. Everyone is using Zero as a word to describe what this bird knows, and it's just not the case. Details, people.

Maybe if half of the posts weren't Roland-Bashing, you would have bothered to click on the direct link to the original article.
(Don't get me wrong, Roland is a whore.)

Obligatory... (2, Funny)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028302)

But does the parrot run linu...uh, nevermind...

B F Skinner and pigeons (2, Insightful)

panurge (573432) | more than 9 years ago | (#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...

Parrot intelligence (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028312)

I own an Arican Grey parrot. in the past I've also owned a blue and gold macaw (another species noted for its intelligence). In some ways both are dumber'n a box of rocks, in other ways smart.

Pepperbug has made some pretty fantastic claims for Alex, but I don't see anything here that can be proven to be anything more than conditioned responses.

Groklaw background (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 9 years ago | (#13028313)

This isn't related to the article, but I noticed primidi [primidi.com] has the same banner background as Groklaw. [groklaw.net]

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

jurt1235 (834677) | more than 9 years ago | (#13028324)

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.
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