Study shows parrots can pass classic test of intelligence

February 26, 2019 by Irene Pepperberg, Harvard University
Study shows parrots can pass classic test of intelligence
Irene Pepperberg, a research associate in Harvard’s Psychology Department, with African grey parrot Griffin. Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Usually, calling someone a bird-brain is meant as an insult, but an African grey parrot named Griffin is rewriting the rules when it comes to avian intelligence.

A new study shows the African grey can perform some  at levels beyond that of 5-year-old humans. The results not only suggest that humans aren’t the only species capable of making complex inferences, but also point to flaws in a widely used test of animal intelligence. The study is described in a November paper published online in Behaviour.

The paper arose from a collaboration among cognitive psychologists Irene Pepperberg, a research associate in Harvard’s Psychology Department; Francesca Cornero ’19; Suzanne Gray A.L.B. ’15, now the manager of the Alex Foundation at the Pepperberg Lab; and developmental psychologists Susan Carey, the Henry A. Morss Jr. and Elisabeth W. Morss Professor of Psychology, and Shilpa Mody, Ph.D. ’16.

The classic study uses a two-cup test. A reward is hidden in one of two cups; subjects are then shown that one cup is empty, and those that successfully choose the other cup are thought to employ a process known as “inference by exclusion”—reasoning that the reward is in cup A or B; if it is not in A, it must be in B.

For years, researchers have argued that , including infants as young as 17 months, and animals from a wide number of species, including grey parrots, understand this process.

“This is really about logic,” Pepperberg said. “In the wild, nonhumans must make these kinds of choices when they decide on things like, ‘Where should I forage? I saw other creatures eating food in this area. … If there’s nothing right here, I should deduce that something is nearby.'”

But what’s important about this study is not just that Griffin is, in some ways, as smart as a 5-year-old, but, said Pepperberg, “We also argue that this two-cup task, which has been the gold standard, only tells you about a certain level of ability. If you really want to study inference by exclusion, you have to go to the more complicated three- and four-cup tasks.”

Based on Carey and Mody’s notion that the two-cup task wasn’t an effective test of human cognition—that subjects could be choosing that B cup simply by default, not because they think the reward must be there—Pepperberg, Gray, and Cornero decided to put Griffin’s apparent smarts to the test.

Researchers in Harvard’s Psychology Department conduct a four-cup test on an African grey parrot. Credit: Harvard University

Designed to add a wrinkle to the two-cup task, the more complex tests work like this: For the three-cup test, one reward is hidden in a single cup, and another is placed in one of two additional cups to one side of the first cup. When faced with a choice, participants should pick the single cup, as it is the only cup guaranteed to have a reward. This task doesn’t test inference by exclusion, but does test understanding of certainty versus mere possibility—a precursor to exclusion.

Tests have shown that, until they reach about 2 and a half years old, young children fail at similar tasks. The same goes for apes. But Griffin outperformed even 5-year-olds.

The four-cup test works similarly: Rewards are placed in one cup of each pair, then one cup in a pair is shown to be empty. Successful subjects will then pick the other cup in that pair, understanding that it must hold the reward, and that they have only a 50-50 chance of finding the reward in the other pair. Two-and-a-half-year-old children again fail, showing that they do not fully understand inference by exclusion.

Though Griffin passed both tests with flying colors, Pepperberg, Cornero, and Gray wanted to be sure he hadn’t simply learned to choose whichever cup was next to the empty one, so they designed a series of additional trials to test this possibility.

“Basically, we forced him to gamble,” Pepperberg said. “For a small percentage of trials, we would put nothing on one side and show him an empty cup on that side … so he if wanted a reward, and understood the system, he’d know that now he couldn’t go to the cup next to the empty one; instead he’d have to gamble on the 50-50 side. And he hated it, but he did it on all the trials in the subset.”

The trio even developed a  in which he had the choice between the guaranteed small  of a nut or, in a small percentage of trials, gambling and potentially receiving one of his favorite treats—a Skittle.

“We wanted to make sure he wasn’t just avoiding the empty side completely … and, again, that he didn’t always pick the cup next to the one that was empty,” Pepperberg said. “If he wanted that very special candy, he’d have to go to the 50-50 side. A good-enough percentage of the time, he gambled. But what was interesting was that if he lost, he wouldn’t gamble on the next trial.”

Ultimately, Pepperberg said, tests like these don’t only reveal the intelligence of birds like Griffin, but also help shed light on the roots of human intelligence.

“Birds are separated from us by 300 million years of evolution, and their brains are organized differently than ours,” Pepperberg said. “That’s why this was so exciting—because we were able to show that Griffin was working at the level of a 5-year-old, on a  at which even apes would not likely succeed.”

 Explore further: Researchers test intelligence of African grey parrot

More information: Irene M. Pepperberg et al. Logical reasoning by a Grey parrot? A case study of the disjunctive syllogism, Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1163/1568539X-00003528

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EV startup Rivian files patents for ‘digital jerry cans’

The new range-extending removable battery packs are designed to fit in the bed of the company’s R1T pickup

Electric truck upstart Rivian has filed patents for a removable battery pack that will fit in the bed of its R1T pickup.

The concept was revealed after Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe was questioned by All Things EVabout range anxiety.

“We have some interesting auxiliary batteries that we’re looking at … like a digital jerry can.”

The patent application called the battery an “Electric Vehicle with Modular Removable Auxiliary Battery with Integrated Cooling,” and lists the dimensions at 12 to 24 inches deep by 48 to 60 inches wide, with the same height of the box.

The whole unit will undoubtedly be heavy and require a forklift to remove. There is also a second battery style that will lie flat on the bed.

us20190016231a1 20190117 d00000 1 EV startup Rivian files patents for digital jerry cansThe design is less like a digital gas can and more like a second gas tank, which would extend the range of the truck beyond what it would be stock.

It will connect to ports at the rear of the cab, and tie into the truck’s on-board computer so it can change settings for braking, suspension and performance to accommodate for the added weight.

Rivian plans on releasing three different battery sizes: 105 kWh, 135 kWh and 180 kWh, with the largest battery rumoured to have 410 miles (660 km) of range.

The addition of these external packs could push the range above the mythical 500-mile (800-km) range, which would make the truck much more appealing to the adventurous demographic that Rivian is trying to cater to.

Although the patent was filed last year, it became “pending” on February 22nd.

Rivian R1T Pickup Truck & R1S Hit The Slopes At 11,000 Feet: Video


At home in the mountains.

The Rivian R1T electric truck and R1S electric SUV ventured out into the backcountry for a joyous ride.

Without a set script, it was quite simply a let’s see what’s out there type of drive.

Well, at 11,000 feet above sea level in the middle of winter, you can expect to encounter snow. Lots of it, in fact. And that’s precisely what was found. Powder for days, says Rivian.

The video is actually the conclusion of what began as an adventure out to Aspen, Colorado where both the R1T and R1S were displayed. Later, both of the adventure vehicles headed off on a journey, with Rivian dropping hints here and there of what was to come.

Well, the hints have now ended and this stunning clip is the end result. So, go ahead and watch it. It’s quite amazing.

Video description:

This past January, we made a short film. There was no script, no set, no actors. Just mountains as far as the eye could see, powder for days and the hut of our dreams, luring us 11,000 feet up above sea level.

We invited Ben Moon to bring a few friends, some cameras and several underlayers, and we filmed the magic that ensued as we headed off the grid, into the backcountry, in the R1T and R1S.

The Brain

Functional Magentic Resonance ImagingTypes of Brain ImagingFunctional Near-Infrared SpectroscopyTreatment of Depression With rTMSBiology of Emotions

Myth: “Brain Training” is Supported by Neuroscience

Neuromyth: “Brain Training” Is Supported by Neuroscience

Online computer games promise to improve “memory, problem solving, concentration, speed of thinking, language, and visual-spatial recognition.” They further promise that they “work your social skills, social awareness, self-awareness, and self-control” while you’re having fun. These are tempting offers, and this is a very lucrative and growing business in the United States as people age and many older adults seek out ways to maintain cognitive functioning.

“Brain training” grew from $600 million in annual revenues in 2009 to more than a $1 billion in 2012 and is projected to reach $4 to $10 billion by 2020, according to a 2016 promotional video by SharpBrains, a brain training enterprise. Brain training programs have many audiences. Some are aimed at aging populations, others at millennials, while others cater to young schoolchildren. “Brain training” is different than educational gaming in that brain training programs usually claim to be backed by neuroscience. Brain training is also usually computer mediated and prides itself as being “playful,” “fun,” and “enjoyable”: “Brain Training: Fun and Simple Exercises to Train Your Brain to Immediately Get Sharper, Faster, and More Powerful” seems like attractive alternatives to the hard work of learning. While it is correct to presume that learning does not have to be painful and can be enjoyable, brain training through commercial ventures is not necessarily the solution.

Where the Myth Comes From

Multiple commercial as well as clinical venues sell “brain training” services. The promise of improved brains with little effort is very attractive— humans always want as much as they can get with as little effort as possible. Many “brain training” commercial ventures have neuroscientists and medical physicians on their boards, who testify to different (narrower) elements of the (broader) promise, or who are simply listed to offer the appearance of scientific backing. For example, one such business is run by a Stanford marketing graduate who identified his business as “an independent market research firm.” He himself does not have any neuroscience credentials, nor does he claim to do anything but market research, but his scientific advisory board includes (in addition to other marketing professionals) four medical doctors, one of whom is a well-known author on aging. This researcher’s reputation as an expert on aging lends a great deal of credibility to the company’s claims. This medical doctor, however, has never published any work on brain training and is better known for his work in the 1970s and 1980s on aging populations and blood pressure, Alzheimer’s onset, and maternal age, sleep and aging, and immunodeficiency in aging. The simple presence of this person on the webpage, however, is enough to convince many people that these types of companies are credible and neuroscientifically based.

What We Know Now

The term “brain training” is extremely broad, so much so that consensus about what is meant was debated in 2014 in academia, as dozens defended the concept while others criticized it. In an attempt to resolve this conflict, the Association for Psychological Sciences published a paper that showed, unsurprisingly, that:

[b]ased on this examination, we find extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance.

This means that if a person plays a computer game that rehearses working memory, working memory skills will likely be improved, but only for the duration of the practice. This also means that orienting attention might be improved (near transfer), and self- regulation will likely not improve (far transfer). It shouldn’t come as much surprise that if a targeted skill is rehearsed, it can improve. In short, if a single cognitive sub-skill is rehearsed, such as inhibitory control, it can improve, but this doesn’t mean that all executive functioning sub-skills will also improve, nor that the effects will last longer than the training.

We know that many studies that show positive results for brain training suffer from either sampling bias or the placebo effect. One of the biggest training businesses, Luminosity, paid $2 million in fines because the Federal Trade Commission said their advertisement “preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline.” Additionally, many studies cited to support brain training are too small to be statistically reliable, and others have selectively reported data. Michael Kane of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro is cited as saying: “It’s astonishing how poor some of the experimental designs have been, violating many of the most fundamental principles that we regularly teach to undergraduates in introductory courses.”

We also know that there is not very much evidence for or against brain training in school-age children. With so little known, Ferrero and colleagues suggest:

[t]he propagation of brain-based interventions with dubious scientific basis involves not only a substantial economic cost, but also an opportunity cost; that is, parents and children risk wasting money and time in a useless treatment when they could invest those resources on an effective solution . . . Many of these practices are unlikely to produce any benefit and can even harm schoolchildren.

While there are few interventions shown to work with children, there is a rich body of research on sub-skills, with studies that are more refined and convincing. All these studies suggest that some aspects of cognition can be improved by some interventions, but most do not last long term, nor are they transferable to general cognitive benefits as seen in Table 5.2.

Table 5.2. Examples of Brain Training of Cognitive Skills and Findings

Cognitive focus Study Findings
Working memory Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 270. “. . . programs produced reliable short-term improvements in working memory skills. For verbal working memory, these near-transfer effects were not sustainedat follow-up, whereas for visuospatial working memory, limited evidence suggested that such effects might be maintained. More importantly, there was no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills (nonverbal and verbal ability, inhibitory processes in attention, word decoding, and arithmetic) . . . ”
Attention Posner, M. I., Rothbart, M. K., & Tang, Y. Y. (2015). Enhancing attention through training. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 4, 1-5. “ . . . there are no studies showing that training the executive network in children can improve adult outcomes” “There are correlations between the executive attention network and self control or self regulation in children and adults . . . ”
Inhibitory control Karbach, J. (2015). Plasticity of executive functions in childhood and adolescence: Effects of cognitive training interventions. Revista Argentina de Ciencias del Comportamiento, 7(1), 64-70. “Despite some encouraging findings revealing that executive control training benefitted untrained task and abilities, such as fluid intelligence and academic performance, recent findings regarding the transferability of training-induced performance improvements to untrained tasks are heterogeneous.”
ADHD Tajik-Parvinchi, D., Wright, L., & Schachar, R. (2014). Cognitive rehabilitation for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Promises and problems. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 23(3), 207. “Cognitive training shows promise in remediating deficits in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a disorder believed to stem from deficient cognitive processes— where the focus has been primarily on training working memory and attention.” “Although the overall pattern of findings from these studies is promising, the methodological and theoretical limitations associated with the literature limit conclusions about the efficacy of cognitive training as a rehabilitation method for ADHD.”
Decision-making Kable, J. W., Caulfield, M. K., Falcone, M., McConnell, M., Bernardo, L., Parthasarathi, T., . . . & Diefenbach, P. (2017). No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Neural Activity During Decision-Making. Journal of Neuroscience, 2832-16. “ . . . we found no evidence that cognitive training influences neural activity during decision-making, nor did we find effects of cognitive training on measures of delay discounting or risk sensitivity. Participants in the commercial training condition improved with practice on the specific tasks they performed during training, but participants in both conditions showed similar improvement on standardized cognitive measures over time. Moreover, the degree of improvement was comparable to that observed in individuals who were reassessed without any training whatsoever. Commercial adaptive cognitive training appears to have no benefits in healthy young adults above those of standard video games for measures of brain activity, choice behavior, or cognitive performance.”

All these examples suggest limited benefits to brain training, at best.

This information helps teachers prioritize the activities they do in class. Simple repetition of patterns (with or without technology) is excellent for extending working memory, but unless continual rehearsal occurs, the effects don’t last long, as research from brain training shows us. On the other hand, simulations, case studies, and problem-based learning are extremely effective in long-term learning goals, due to the direct application, social interaction, and emotional connection to the content. These comparisons make it easier for teachers to make better decisions about successful classroom interventions.

Pickup Review: 2019 Ford Ranger

Not all truck buyers want to say “Supersize Me”


Ranger returns to the smaller-truck market
Manageable size, strong engine
Limited choices, can get pricey with options
Add dials for temperature control
SuperCrew XLT

Finally, smaller is coming back in style. Pickup trucks have taken “full-size” to a whole new level of ridiculous proportions, to the point that it’s tough to get in and out of them, or even squeeze them into parking spots.

Smaller trucks are now sized fairly close to what full-size trucks used to be. That should make them appealing to a lot of buyers who don’t need the extra capability – or the bulk – of a half-ton, but still want something with cargo capacity that isn’t an SUV. The Japanese never left this segment, but the North American automakers are coming back in, with Ford’s new Ranger the latest addition.

Naturally, it’s larger than the old Ranger, which ended its run over here after the 2012 model year. Ford’s small truck remained in production in global markets, and our new one is a version of Australia’s Ranger, but with different suspension tuning, a fully-boxed frame, and different engine and transmission.

That powerplant, the only one currently available, is a 2.3L turbocharged four-cylinder, borrowed from the Mustang EcoBoost and making 270 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s mated to a ten-speed automatic lifted from the F-150.

It starts as the SuperCab, with six-foot box, four seats, and small, rear-hinged back doors that require you to first open the front ones. The SuperCrew has a five-foot box, five seats, and four conventionally opening doors. American buyers can opt for two-wheel drive, but all Rangers here in Canada are 4×4.

2019 ford ranger lariat 1 Pickup Review: 2019 Ford Ranger

2019 Ford Ranger Lariat with FX4 Off-Road Package

Jil McIntosh
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