Pigeons have something surprising in common with artificial intelligence

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The humble pigeon has a brain that rivals high tech artificial intelligence, a new study explains. Researchers at the University of Iowa say the common city bird is one of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom — with wits that match the best robots.

Many people see pigeons merely as pests, considering them unintelligent and inspiring the insult “birdbrain.” Now, researchers find its cognitive powers are on a par with advanced computer neural networks. In experiments, pigeons were given complex tests that high-level thinking, such as using logic or reasoning, would not solve.

They turned to exhaustive trial and error, memorizing enough scenarios to reach nearly 70 percent accuracy. Scientists equate the repetitive, trial-and-error approach to AI. Machines are programmed to employ the same basic methodology. Scientists “teach” the computers how to identify patterns and objects easily recognized by humans.

The basic process of making associations – considered a lower-level thinking technique – is the same. It centers on making connections, such as “sky-blue” and “water-wet,” for instance.

“You hear all the time about the wonders of AI, all the amazing things that it can do,” says corresponding author Ed Wasserman, the Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, in a university release. “It can beat the pants off people playing chess, or at any video game, for that matter. It can beat us at all kinds of things. How does it do it? Is it smart? No, it’s using the same system or an equivalent system to what the pigeon is using here.”

Four test pigeons viewed a type of stimuli and had to decide which category it belonged in by pecking a button on the right or on the left. They included line width and angle and concentric and sectioned rings. A correct answer provided the pigeon with a tasty treat. No rules or logic would help decipher the task.

“These stimuli are special. They don’t look like one another, and they’re never repeated,” says Wasserman, who has studied pigeon intelligence for nearly 50 years. “You have to memorize the individual stimuli or regions from where the stimuli occur in order to do the task.”

visual learning test for pigeons
University of Iowa researchers concluded pigeons use the same base learning principle, called associative learning, as artificial intelligence. The pigeons mastered exhaustive, repetitive tests such as the one shown above. In the center square are 16 sample stimuli out of the thousands the pigeons had to categorize. The stimuli were drawn from two different categories, shown on either side.

Each bird began by correctly answering about half the time. Over hundreds of tests, however, the quartet eventually upped their score to an average of 68 percent correct.

“The pigeons are like AI masters,” Wasserman continues. “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.”

The study reveals that both birds and AI employ associative learning, and yet that base-level thinking is what allowed the pigeons to ultimately score successfully. If people were to take the same test, researchers say they’d score poorly and would probably give up. People generally prefer declarative learning, exercising reason based on a set of rules or strategies. Only a select number of animals — such as dolphins and chimpanzees — appear to be capable of this higher-level thinking.

“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,” the study author 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.”

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

The study in Current Biology backs previous research suggesting pigeons can discriminate Picasso paintings from Monets. They have also been found to detect cancer in radiology images, count as well as primates, recognize words, and have remarkable powers of recall.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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  1. I’v always know they were smart, try shooting at them a few times & they stop coming around. I’m talking about barnyard pigeons not city pigeons. Just as tasty as any chicken too.

  2. So are you saying that AI, like pigeons, gather in large groups in city environments and crap all over everything in sight?

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