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Bringing Back the Magic: A Transformational Memior
Reprinted from New Scientist Magazine, 08 July 2000.
Give that bird a mouse!

Bored? Feeling caged in? Then get on the Web. Graham Lawton meets an unlikely surfer

ARTHUR'S workspace is pretty much like the others around him. He has his own computer, his own chair and his own stash of goodies. Still, his behaviour isn't quite what you'd expect in the rarefied intellectual atmosphere of the MIT Media Lab. He has a habit of dropping chunks of chewed vegetable on the floor, and he sometimes attacks visitors. But Arthur has an excuse--he has a mental age of about four. Oh, and he's a parrot.

It's not that unusual to see animals in the Media Lab. After all, lots of researchers bring their dogs. But Arthur is there to work. Every day, his supervisor, Ben Resner, gives him a specially designed clicker. One click changes the image on his computer screen from a car to an owl. A second changes it again, to an image of a woman. A third conjures up a picture of an African grey parrot, the same species as Arthur. A fourth brings back the car. And if you think that sounds a bit like browsing, you'd be right. Arthur is learning to surf the Web.

"What we're trying to do is to build a Web browser for parrots," says Arthur's owner, Irene Pepperberg, a biologist from the University of Arizona. Pepperberg is currently at MIT as a visiting professor, and she and Resner believe that by teaching Arthur to use the Internet, they could liberate thousands of captive parrots from a life of boredom and loneliness. It could also reveal something about parrot behaviour and cognition. And once they've got the birds online, they're planning to do the same for dogs.

For Pepperberg, the InterPet project is a natural extension of her work with African greys. They are among the most intelligent and communicative members of the parrot family, and she famously taught one of her birds, Alex, to communicate using spoken language (New Scientist, 15 January, p 40). Alex is now 23, and can recognise and name around fifty objects, identify seven colours and five shapes, count up to six and understand the concepts "same", "different","bigger" and "smaller".

Pepperberg claims Alex's skills are proof that African greys are at least as intelligent as chimps and dolphins, and may even be able to outwit four-year-old children at certain tasks. This intelligence, she says, is one reason they make good pets. The other is their sociability. In the wild, parrots live in flocks and become extremely anxious if they are separated from the rest. Captive birds constantly crave attention.

But the very characteristics that make parrots better pets than, say, sparrows, also make them hugely demanding. Brainy, friendly pets need stimulation and company. Take those away--by going to work nine hours a day, for instance--and you get a bored and lonely animal. "These really are intelligent birds," says Liz Wilson, a Pennsylvania-based parrot shrink who helps owners with their delinquent birds. "If they're forced to sit in their cages for nine or ten hours a day with the same old toys, they get bored out of their minds." At best, an understimulated parrot will become withdrawn and start plucking out its feathers. At worst, its relationship with its owner can deteriorate to the point of conflict.

That's why Pepperberg is so keen to get Arthur online. Although he's her pet, she can't take him home because her flatmate in Boston has a cat. Poor Arthur has to spend his nights alone in a cage in the lab, and he needs something to do. Pepperberg and Resner reckon that the Web would be infinitely more interesting than a ball with a bell in it. "Toys are okay, but we want to allow him to be social," Resner says.

At the moment, Arthur's browser consists of a crude plastic box with two clickable levers. The left lever selects pictures, the right lever lets him choose snatches of music. The images are displayed on a liquid crystal screen above his perch. Arthur won't look at a conventional cathode ray tube because to him it looks like a strobe light. Parrots' flicker fusion rate--the frequency at which their eyes convert a series of still images into a continuous motion picture--is much higher than that of humans.

Unfortunately, Arthur doesn't yet seem that enthusiastic. The images were designed to produce distinct responses: the woman ought to be a favourite (it's Pepperberg), while the owl--a natural enemy--should be an instant turn-off. The car is supposed to be neutral, while the picture of the parrot should elicit different responses depending on Arthur's mood. The trouble is, the pictures seem meaningless to Arthur--he's not especially moved by any of them. "He's acting like a child with an OK-ish new toy. He's not that eager," says Pepperberg.

But she's sure that some simple modifications can win Arthur over. For one thing, at the moment his gear is right in the middle of a busy, interesting lab. Pepperberg wants to put it in his cage so he can explore it when he's bored and lonely. She also thinks the system needs a general upgrade. "We haven't got software that he is interested in yet," she says. "We need to get the ergonomics of the clicker right so he plays with it more and enjoys it, and we need to put up images he likes." That's why she is planning to install a video camera at her parents' house in Tucson, Arizona, where her other parrots are staying while she is at MIT. She plans to feed the images into Arthur's browser so he can contact his old friends at will. He might even be able to videoconference them.

If that works, then it's a short step to setting up chat rooms where parrots can socialise with one another in cyberspace. Eventually, Resner envisages special parrot pages on the Web. They would have to be ring-fenced to keep the birds hooked up to interesting sites, but child safety software like Net Nanny suggests this would be easy. And what would be in these parrot pages? Video-on-demand, perhaps. Sound boutiques with new and exciting noises to imitate, jukeboxes and basic video games. "If parrots like it and owners want it, the service providers would be moronic not to do it," says Resner. "Parrots could be really heavy users.

Reprinted from New Scientist Magazine, 08 July 2000.

Alex, Griffin and Kyaaro are at the lab at the University of Arizona, not at her parents' home.

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