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AI Beware: Pigeons with Similar Intellect are Astonishing Researchers

AI Beware: Pigeons with Similar Intellect are Astonishing Researchers

Bird Brains use same “Associative Learning” as AI

The Rise of the Pigeon Masterminds: What These Birds Can Teach Us About Artificial Intelligence

Did you know pigeons are giving AI a run for its money? A recent study by psychologists at the University of Iowa found that pigeons have some serious brainpower when it comes to learning.

“The pigeons are like AI masters,” said the study’s lead author, Ed Wasserman. “They’re using a biological algorithm, the one that nature has given them, whereas the computer is using an artificial algorithm that humans gave them.”

Of course, computers have way more memory and storage power than a pigeon brain, but hey, let’s give credit where credit is due.

The researchers gave these feathered geniuses complex categorization tests that would leave most humans scratching their heads. The pigeons didn’t rely on high-level thinking or reasoning to solve the problems, but instead used trial and error to memorize enough scenarios to reach an impressive 70% accuracy. That’s right, they basically just winged it!

AI and pigeons both employ this “associative learning.” If people were to take the same test, Wasserman says, they’d score poorly and would probably give up.

Researchers compared the pigeons’ method to that of artificial intelligence. They both use the same basic approach of making associations and identifying patterns.

The findings of the study also back up previous research showing that pigeons have some impressive abilities. They can recognize Picasso paintings from Monets, count as well as primates, detect cancer in radiology images, recognize words, and have remarkable powers of recall. That’s quite a birdbrain…

But here’s the thing, even with all the hype around AI, we may have been underestimating the power of associative learning in humans and animals. The researchers found that the so-called higher level of learning attributed mostly to people, called declarative learning (like using language), is not as paramount as we thought. Associative learning, which is about recognizing and making connections between objects or patterns, is just as important.

“These stimuli are special. They don’t look like one another, and they’re never repeated,” says Wasserman, who has studied pigeon intelligence for five decades. “You have to memorize the individual stimuli or regions from where the stimuli occur in order to do the task.”

Each of the four test pigeons began by correctly answering about half the time. But over hundreds of tests, the quartet eventually upped their score to an average of 68% right.

“The goal was to see to what extent a simple associative mechanism was capable of solving a task that would trouble us because people rely so heavily on rules or strategies,” Wasserman adds. “In this case, those rules would get in the way of learning. The pigeon never goes through that process. It doesn’t have that high-level thinking process. But it doesn’t get in the way of their learning. In fact, in some ways it facilitates it.”

Wasserman sees a paradox in how associative learning is viewed.

“People are wowed by AI doing amazing things using a learning algorithm much like the pigeon,” he says, “yet when people talk about associative learning in humans and animals, it is discounted as rigid and unsophisticated.”

The study was co-authored by Drew Kain and Ellen O’Donoghue.