Sunday, February 19, 2006

Alex the Talking Parrot Online

Photo Courtesy Brandeis University

So you thought that your child was difficult when faced with learning boring arithmetic tables? No, maybe they're not learning disabled, but like Alex the Parrot, more interested in learning what interests them most. In Alex's case it appears he prefers a piece of four cornered wood to answering researchers' questions.

If you're still reading this blog instead of tackling something boring at work here's another link to help you waste some more time. In another post I told you about the great audio collection of bird songs at the British Library. Now you can hear Alex, the chatty and sage African grey parrot, speak by clicking on the audio link at the bottom of the page at the British Library. Although only endowed with a walnut-sized brain, Alex has been trained by Dr. Irene Pepperberg at Brandeis University, who says he understands a numerical concept akin to zero -- an abstract notion that humans don't typically understand until age three or four. " Go below to read more on Alex and the power of the word " No" when spouted by a stubborn parrot.

Alex The Remarkable Parrot With A Mind of His Own

A remarkable case of avian vocal learning has occurred in a scientific laboratory in the U.S.A. It concerns a talking African grey parrot called Alex trained by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. To quote from Dr. Pepperberg's account, Alex "is able to participate in some forms of inter-species communication" (by which the author means she can converse with the bird!). Alex is capable of demonstrating more than simply the ability to imitate human speech patterns.

But what exactly can Alex do? The bird was trained to identify vocally certain objects by name, e.g. "key" and "paper". It was also taught to name certain colours such as "green" and "blue", and certain shapes with labels like "three corner" (easier to learn than triangle) in order to categorise objects with respect to colour and shape. It also learnt to recognise quantities of objects up to five and learnt the functional use of the word "no" as well as phrases such as "come here" and "wanna go". After five years it had been taught a functional repertoire of about 40 vocalisations.

Whenever he incorrectly identified an object, Alex was told "no ". After about 18 months of training, he began to use the word to his trainer when he appeared to wish not to be handled. Trainers then started to use the word "no" when refusing to relinquish an item desired by the parrot. Soon Alex would use the word "no". When refusing to identify a proffered object, he would say "no"; also when he had finished with his water, and when tossing an unwanted toy back at a trainer! The following is an excerpt transcribed from a tape and illustrating how the bird uses the word "no". It appears that Alex is using the word in order to refuse one task so that he can request a preferred item, a piece of four-cornered wood:

  • Trainer: Alex, what's this?

  • Parrot: No!
  • Trainer: Yes, what is this?

  • Parrot: Four-corner wood (indistinct).

  • Trainer: Four, say better .

  • Parrot: No.

  • Trainer: Yes!

  • Parrot: Three. ..paper.

  • Trainer: Alex, "four", say "four".

  • Parrot: No!

  • Trainer: Come on!

  • Parrot: No!

  • Trainer: Alex!

  • Parrot: Paper .

  • Trainer: Alex, what's this? Come on.

  • Parrot: No.

  • Trainer: You can do it, come on!

  • Parrot: No!

  • Trainer: Yes!

  • Parrot: Paper.

  • Trainer: What is this?

  • Parrot: Four-corner ...paper .
  • Trainer: No! Four-corner what?
  • Parrot: Three (four? - not distinct) wood.
  • Trainer: Right, four what wood?
  • Parrot: Key.. ..No!
  • Trainer: Yes, what's this?

  • Parrot: No!

  • Trainer: (Laugh)

  • "No" is also employed to reject unacceptably small pieces of food, and to reject toys apparently too worn to be of interest. In many cases the refusals to identify or relinquish are accompanied by the turning of his head away from the trainer.

    No comments: