‘A Damn Good Brain’: Pigeons Possess Problem-Solving Skills ‘Similar To AI’

Pigeons are smarter than you think


3 Minutes Read

pigeons sitting on a wall A new study reveals how pigeons learn - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

A new study reveals that pigeons are highly intelligent problem-solvers. The way they make decisions is similar to the learning process of artificial intelligence (AI) models.

Researchers from Ohio State University and University of Iowa gave 24 pigeons various visual tasks. The pigeons had to peck a button to categorize images of things like lines of different thicknesses. The researchers rewarded correct choices with food and wrong choices with nothing. 

The test showed how pigeons learn by trial and error, improving their ability to make correct choices over time. 

Pigeons are already known to be able to categorize pictures of everyday objects, medical images of human tissue and muscle, artworks, and letters of the alphabet. But the new research shows the process by which they learn for the first time.

The evidence for pigeon intelligence suggests “that we should accord pigeons and other birds far greater respect than they customarily receive,” the researchers write.

Associative learning

Figure 1 from The pigeon as a machine study
Brandon Turner, Edward Wasserman Figure from “The pigeon as a machine”

The mechanism by which pigeons learn is called associative learning. It is the means by which living organisms understand consequences and make future decisions based on past experiences.

Associative learning can be emulated by a machine. After testing the pigeons, the researchers devised a simple computer associative learning model to compare how the model learned the same tasks given to pigeons. There was a close fit between model and pigeon. 

“In this sense, the pigeon’s category learning prowess can be understood as if the pigeon were a machine,” write the researchers. But the important thing, they explain, is not that machine-like qualities of pigeons. Rather, it is the insight into “possible biological mechanisms” behind a pigeon’s excellent abilities at categorizing images.

While associative learning in AI has been “widely celebrated,” it tends to be considered “primitive” when displayed by nonhuman animals. But though the associative learning mechanism used by pigeons may be simple, the study shows it can achieve complex cognitive feats.

“Maybe we can get some further insight into what is going on in that little bird brain,” Edward Wasserman, one of the study’s authors, told The Guardian. “It’s a damn good brain – it may be small in size, but they pack a punch when it comes to the capacity to learn.”

The researchers claim that the pigeons in the study were not harmed. Plant Based News does not condone the use of animals in research.

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