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Pigeons’ Brains Rival High-tech Artificial Intelligence: Study

Pigeons are like AI masters and are the sharpest animals in the animal kingdom, and their intelligence rivals the best of machines

The brain of the common pigeon can compete with that of sophisticated artificial intelligence, a new study reveals. 

Pigeons are one of the most intelligent animals, it has wits on par with the greatest robots. The pest is traditionally considered stupid – inspiring the insult birdbrain.

Now a study has found its cognitive powers are on 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.

A pigeon takes off in bright sunshine in front of the European Central Bank headquarters. The cognitive powers of pigeons are on par with advanced computer neural networks, according to a new study. PHOTO BY FRANK RUMPENHORST/GETTY IMAGES

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.

They are “taught” 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.

Corresponding author Professor Ed Wasserman, of the University of Iowa, said: “You hear all the time about the wonders of AI, all the amazing things that it can do. “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 were shown a stimulus and had to decide, by pecking a button on the right or on the left, to which category it belonged. They included line width and angle and concentric and sectioned rings. A correct answer yielded a tasty pellet. No rules or logic would help decipher the task.

Wasserman, who has studied pigeons for half a century, said: “These stimuli are special. They don’t look like one another, and they’re never repeated.

“You have to memorize the individual stimuli or regions from where the stimuli occur in order to do the task.” Each bird 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.

Wasserman said: “The pigeons are like AI masters. 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.”

Both 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 they’d score poorly and would probably give up.

They prefer declarative learning – exercising reason based on a set of rules or strategies. Only a select few animals – such as dolphins and chimpanzees – are thought to be capable of this higher-level thinking.

Wasserman said: “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.

“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.

Pigeons fly over snow covered park at Kizilay district during snowfall in Ankara, Turkiye on January 31, 2023. PHOTO BY MUHAMMAD SELIM KORKUTATA/GETTY IMAGES

“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.


Produced in association with SWNS Talker.

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