Pigeons can understand space and time, match wits with AI - study

The finding underscores that animals beyond humans and primates show abstract intelligence.

Not a bird brain (photo credit: KATHRYN GAMBLE)
Not a bird brain
(photo credit: KATHRYN GAMBLE)

Can pigeons – those gray, brownish omnipresent birds with bobbling necks that with crows seem to have taken over Israel skies and public squares – match wits with artificial intelligence? Using associative learning, in some ways, a pigeon’s peck can mirror hi-tech. 

Pigeons can match wits with artificial intelligence (AI) at a very basic level, according to psychologists at the University of Iowa who studied the workings of the pigeon brain and how the “brute force” of the bird’s learning shares similarities with AI.

The researchers, who published their study in Current Biology under the title “Resolving the associative learning paradox by category learning in pigeons,” gave the pigeons complex categorization tests that high-level thinking such as using logic or reasoning would not aid in solving. Instead, the pigeons, by virtue of exhaustive trial and error, eventually were able to memorize enough scenarios in the test to reach nearly 70% accuracy.

The researchers equate the pigeons’ repetitive, trial-and-error approach to artificial intelligence, said experimental psychology Prof. Ed Wasserman of the psychological and brain science department at the university and the study’s corresponding author.

Computers employ the same basic methodology, the researchers contend, being “taught” how to identify patterns and objects easily recognized by humans. Granted, computers, because of their enormous memory and storage power—and growing ever more powerful in those domains—far surpass anything the pigeon brain can conjure.
A pigeon flies over an apartment building destroyed in a missile strike, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Sloviansk, Ukraine June 7, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH)A pigeon flies over an apartment building destroyed in a missile strike, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Sloviansk, Ukraine June 7, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH)

Still, the basic process of making associations, which is considered a lower-level thinking technique, is the same between the test-taking pigeons and the latest AI advances.

“You hear all the time about the wonders of AI, all the amazing things that it can do,” he said. “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.”

Asked by The Jerusalem Post to comment, Tel Aviv University School of Zoology Prof. Arnon Lotem – an expert on the relationship among behavior, ecology, and evolution – said the discovery was “not very surprising but it’s nice to show that it actually works. I’m not sure if they worked on humans in comparison. In general, thinking by pigeons is not very complex. Their conclusions could be a basis for understanding more complex behavior. 

Do pigeons pose a threat to the environment?

Pigeons, like crows and others, are aggressively pushing out other bird species, and that may be because they are opportunistic and may be more flexible, but pigeons are not as intelligent as parrots that talk, mimic humans and understand a lot, continued Lotem, who has studied cuckoo birds.

The Ohio researchers sought to tease out two types of learning. One is declarative learning that is predicated on exercising reason based on a set of rules or strategies – a so-called higher level of learning attributed mostly to people. The other, associative learning, centers on recognizing and making connections between objects or patterns, such as, say, “sky-blue” and “water-wet.”

Numerous animal species use associative learning, but only a select few including dolphins and chimpanzees are thought to be capable of declarative learning.

Yet AI is all the rage, with computers, robots, surveillance systems and so many other technologies seemingly “thinking” like humans. But is that really the case, or is AI simply a product of cunning human inputs? Or, as the study’s authors put it, have we shortchanged the power of associative learning in human and animal cognition?

Wasserman’s team devised a “diabolically difficult” test, as he calls it, to find out. Each test pigeon was shown a stimulus and had to decide, by pecking a button on the right or on the left, to which category that stimulus belonged. The categories included line width, line angle, concentric rings, and sectioned rings. A correct answer yielded a tasty pellet, while an incorrect response yielded nothing. What made the test so demanding, Wasserman noted, is its arbitrariness: 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,” said 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 pigeons are like AI masters,” Wasserman declared. “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 common denominator is that AI and pigeons 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, Wasserman says, they’d score poorly and would probably give up.

“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.”