Other Animals
African grey parrot; African grey; grey; Dr. Pepperberg's research lab
Poster for a conference at the Media Lab in Spring, 2000; picture of one of our parrots using our primitive controller and screen to access the system.

I’m sure many of you saw the news about how scientists have developed a system whereby parrots can interact with one another online. I did a wee bit of consulting with the authors because I had worked on the original idea with a number of students while I was at the Media Lab, beginning in 1999.

At the time, we called our project “InterPet Explorer” (for the younger folks amongst you, that was a take-off on the name of the old web browser, Internet Explorer). Although quite sophisticated for the time, our project was a pretty primitive attempt. In 1999, neither the hardware nor the software existed to make something that would actually work at the level that is now possible. We were thrilled to be able to use a brand-new LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor, which was necessary for the birds to see something that is somewhat appropriate color-wise and that didn’t flicker in a bothersome range for them (which was the problem with the then-common CRT [cathode ray tube] screens).

At the time, a single LCD monitor cost about $3,000 (in 1999 dollars; in today’s dollars that is close to $5,500!). Because the monitor wasn’t set up to be used as a touch screen, we had to design a separate beak-proof controller—not a simple task. Even our computer processing power—again, state-of-the-art for 1999—was generally less than what a typical phone can do today! Thus, all that we could build was a very basic, “proof-of-concept” device…intriguing and somewhat news-worthy, but nothing that would be commercially feasible. See https://spectrum.mit.edu/winter-2001/smart-talk/. We presented the results in the spring of 2000 at a conference at MIT (see figures below). People were clearly interested, but the limitations were obvious.

Consequently, I was pretty excited to learn that colleagues working on animal-computer interfaces have finally succeeded! The advent of (relatively) inexpensive computer tablets, high-functioning processing power, and Wi-Fi connections have finally come together to make such a system possible. And I was thrilled not just that my colleagues had succeeded, but that when interviewed that they were also very careful about stating both the pros and cons of the system.

The pros are very clear: They emphasized how it can be used to give solo-living parrots access to other birds, to entertain them, and to allow them even to learn from one another on occasion. The authors also made it clear that the system should be used sparingly, and only in the presence of the owners—because the cons might not have been all that obvious, other than the fact that a parrot beak can easily take an unsupervised system apart in short order!

Specifically, the authors were very much aware that a given bird can be intimidated or scared by the other online bird, and that, quite possibly, the system could become addictive—the same pros and cons that social media have for humans. The system was NOT supposed to simply be an all-purpose “bird-sitter” that would supplant other important behavior patterns such as the use of foraging toys and time spent preening or napping—all essential to physical and mental well-being. Nevertheless, it is clear that this is a system that can be commercially developed into a useful addition for improving human-parrot and parrot-parrot interactions.

Thus, the comparisons with humans’ use of ZOOM are fairly obvious. When the system allows us to share our lives with friends who are far away, to collaborate with colleagues at various universities, etc., we find it a real bonus. However, we have all experienced some level of burnout; for example, during the pandemic, when life sometimes became a huge blur of one ZOOM meeting after another for days on end. The trick, therefore, is balance, and I hope that bird owners will appreciate and understand the best ways to use this new technology.

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