Thursday, February 01, 2018

Bird Brains

Following up last week's post on animal intelligence, I want to suggest that you pick up a copy of the February NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. It includes an article titled "Bird Brainiacs." The conventional dismissive reference to "bird brains" has been radically overturned in recent years. Originally, the avian brain, about the size of a nut, was thought to be severely limited by its lack of a neocortex. Now it's been discovered that birds' brains are much more complex than previously assumed, although structured differently from those of mammals. The article refers to the famous gray parrot genius Alex, who demonstrated that parrots can use English words in the appropriate context rather than simply "parroting" human speech. Parrotlets in South America are among the species that have a kind of "language" of their own, assigning "names" to individuals in the flock. Also described are crows that trade gifts with a girl in Seattle. Experiments show that bird pairs can cooperate to solve problems. Some birds fashion tools out of sticks and other objects. They occasionally show evidence of planning ahead, by stashing their manufactured objects for later use. No wonder some biologists call birds "feathered apes."

That birds, with their small bodies and brains, can be so intelligent makes alien creatures such as the treecats in David Weber's Honor Harrington series more believable. Treecats have human-level intelligence despite being about the size of Earth's domestic felines.

Other items of interest in this issue: The cover article reveals how thoroughly high-tech surveillance already pervades our society, explores its future potential, and discusses the positive and negative sides of this phenomenon. A short piece called "The Parent Trap" features highly realistic robotic babies used in high-school sex education classes. Reading about this program reminded me of human-looking sex robots discussed on a talk show I recently caught a few minutes of (on the TV at the blood bank) and the robots already used in elder care in Japan. Concerning the sex androids, naturally my first thought was what would happen if they awoke to sentience and revolted against their condition of, essentially, slavery.

Here's an article about the Japanese caregiving robots in a variety of shapes and sizes:

Robot Caregivers

Happy Candlemas / Imbolc / Groundhog Day! I've had it with winter already; how about you? In some countries, the Christmas season traditionally ended on Candlemas. So I'm perfectly justified in still displaying the wreath on the door. (Actually, I often keep it up almost until Ash Wednesday, but I can't cite a tradition for that.)

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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