“Humans Are Such Dicks!” Say all the animals.

If animals could talk, can you imagine their trash talk about us? Nothing for children to overhear. Imagine how furious they’d get if they could read books like The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert or Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scanton. Humans are now the cause of the sixth great mass extinction event in the history of the Earth. We’ve fucked this world up so bad that scientists are now naming the geologic age after us – the Anthropocene. And since we’re such collective dumbasses, the age will probably be a short one. To make it even more tragic, scientists are discovering that animals are more aware, more sentient, than we thought. Consciousness of reality, is a spectrum, not a quantum leap. We may be the crown of creation on this planet, but we’re despotic rulers.

After I read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, I started feeling very guilty about what our species is doing to all the other species. Then I started reading Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight For Life by Edward O. Wilson, who suggests we can absolve our guilt if we shared the planet fairly. I’m not sure most of my fellow humans feel that way. And then I bought, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal. This one makes me feel even guiltier. Can we even comprehend minds not like our own? For the past year, I’ve noticed in my news reading more stories dealing with animal intelligence and sentience. Most people love animals, but do they love them enough to give them their fair share of the world?

I’m still reading on the last two books, but when I went looking for customer comments about them on Amazon, I noticed these other books. There seems to be a flood of animal awareness books coming out. Can we read enough books to actually mind-meld with animals? Can we expand our awareness of the natural world quick enough to change who we are, before we destroy us all?

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe (June, 2016)

What A Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe

Just as water influences the dynamics of vision, so it does for hearing, smell, and taste. Water is a superb conductor of sound waves, where they are almost five times longer than in air, as sounds travel five times faster in water. Fishes have benefited from this since the dawn of bones and fins, using sound for both orientation and communication. Water is also an excellent medium for diffusing water-soluble chemical compounds, and is well suited for the perception of smells and tastes. Fishes have separate organs for smelling and tasting, although the distinction is blurred because all substances are encountered in a water solution.

As they did color vision, fishes probably invented hearing. Despite the common assumption that fishes are silent, they actually have more ways of producing sounds than any other group of vertebrate animals. None of these methods involve the main method of all the other vertebrates: the vibration of air against membranes. Fishes can rapidly contract a pair of vocal muscles to vibrate their swim bladder, which also serves as a sound amplifier. They have the options of grating their teeth in their jaws, grinding additional sets of teeth lining their throat, rubbing bones together, stridulating their gill covers, and even—as we’ll see—expelling bubbles from their anuses. Some land-dwelling vertebrates get creative in producing nonvocal sounds, such as the drumming of woodpeckers and the chest pounding of gorillas, but fishes’ terrestrial cousins possess just two types of vocal apparatus—the syrinx of birds and the larynx of all the rest.

“What a Fish Hears, Smells, and Tastes” by Jonathan Balcombe

Makes you wonder what a fish feels and screams when hooked on a line, and then jerked out of the water. Imagine being that fish. Pescatarians probably feel fish are lesser creatures, and thus ethically consumable. But is that true?

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (April, 2016)

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer AckermanFor a long lime, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction.

Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all.

That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so. from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers when it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend bask principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future.

“One – From Dodo to Crow: Take the Measure of a Bird Mind”  by Jennifer Ackerman

My friend Anne raised a baby starling this spring, and I hung out with her when she released the bird. For a couple weeks the bird would come see her. You could see that it had imprinted on Anne, and for a while, that bird lived in two worlds – his natural world, and ours. When you’re that close to nature, you see that nature is more than what we dismiss.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (Sept, 2016)

I can’t quote from the book, but here’s the blurb at Amazon:

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter WohllebenIn The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group.

Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.

I’ve been a vegetarian since 1969, and I have always assumed that plants didn’t suffer. This will be a hard book for me to read. Humans are animals, and in the animal world, everything eats some other creature. But I think, because we’re more aware of reality, we have an obligation to be more than an animal. If we used the animal world for our precedent on ethics, murder would be acceptable. We need to be more conscious of what we eat, how it affects our own health, how it effects the biosphere, and its impact on the ethical treatment of other species. If we stopped raising cattle, it would be one route to Wilson’s plan to share the planet. That would give back a tremendous amount of land to the plants and animals, and greatly reduce our carbon footprint. We should also cut back on fishing the oceans, and let the seas recover.

Of course, that means humans giving up something. We’re not really good at do-be-sharers. But if we gave up beef and at least half of the seafood we eat, we could dramatically change the direction of the sixth extinction. Will we? I don’t think so. I doubt many people will even read these books.

And I don’t mean to be cynical.

It’s just everything the animals say about us is true.

JWH

Birds and Robots

The goal of AI scientists is to create an intelligent robot but many people feel that goal is impossible.  These people believe that the human mind is beyond nature and contains a soul that transcends our physical world.  If that is true, then the goal of silicon life is probably a fantasy.  However, if men and women are merely the most complex example of intelligent beings and leaves behind a trail of previous experiments by mother nature to fashion biological machines that can think, then there is a good chance we may one day give birth to our evolutionary descendants.

Folks who believe that man is different from the creatures of the Earth do so because they believe that animals lack our kind of intelligence and self-awareness.  Animals studies are showing more and more that our relatives on the tree of life often show cognitive traits that we once defined as the sole providence of human nature.  As intelligence and awareness are explored we’re starting to see that we homo sapiens are not that unique.

What we are learning from both robotics and animal studies is intelligence is a huge collection of tricks.  To be human actually means many things, including a fantastic repertoire of abilities, any one of which standing alone can be faked by machines or revealed in animals.  Robots can be programmed or designed to do one thing we can, and even do it better, like playing chess, but that doesn’t mean the robot is intelligent.  The same can be said of animals and their special traits.

Animals far exceed what any robot can do today, and they too are collections of abilities.  We’re starting to see robots that do more than one thing in a way that makes us see ourselves in their struggle to evolve.

Look at this video of Snowball, a head-banging Cockatoo and ask yourself if this bird is not enjoying himself rocking out to the music, and how is his response to music different from yours.

Snowball keeps better time than I do and I can’t match his dance moves.  Building a robot to dance to the beat probably would be easy for today’s robot engineers, but could we build a machine that enjoys a good downbeat as much?  Snowball stands above anything we’ve done with robots as people tower over ants.  Right now each artificial intelligence experiment struggles to create a single intelligent function that works in the most minimal of fashion.  Most people won’t think that Snowball perceives reality like a person, but if we make a list of all the things this bird can do and compare it with what we can do, there is a huge overlap.

Now look at this violin playing robot.  The robot is not aware of playing music, but it can do something that most humans can’t.

But can we say that Snowball is aware of music?  For all we know, the dance to the beat the bird is doing might be its way of showing pain, and we’re just anthropomorphizing that it’s getting down with the tune.  I don’t think so, though.

Now look at this news story about artificial intelligence to get some idea how complex the challenge of programming abilities into a machine.

Notice how many different projects this news story covers where the robot just does one simple thing.  Snowball and you have subsystems to do thousands if not millions of functions that could be considered an intelligent reaction to reality.  How did evolution program all those functions?

Now look at this video of Alex the talking parrot.  This bird seems to think.  Alex even asks for things it wants.  This is way beyond what robots can do, even though some of Alex’s tricks have been pursued in AI studies.  The question becomes can a robot ever think for itself?  Can a robot be created that learns from interacting with its environment like Alex the parrot?

Here’s a collection of videos that shows off robotic abilities.  None of these robots think for themselves, although some give the illusion they do.  Are we just highly evolved illusions?  There is a difference between perceiving or reacting to reality and being able to think about and understand reality.  Anyone who knows people who have suffered strokes or live with dementia know how fragile our unique abilities are, and how they can be taken away.  We also know how severely the body can be damaged and yet the mind inside can soar to brilliant levels, like Helen Keller or Stephen Hawking.  We have no idea what’s going on inside of the mind of an animal.  Dolphins could be just as aware and intelligent as humans.  How will we know when a robot becomes aware?

Robotics is the one area of science fiction prediction that is rushing ahead as fast as science can apply itself.  It’s not costly like manned space exploration and the general public anticipates more benefits of its results, especially in Japan.  Theoretically, an AI intelligence could be created by a high school kid in his bedroom.  How soon will we see an AI robot that has the intelligence of Alex the parrot?

If you’ve studied this concept at all you’ll know it’s not something that will be programmed.  Someone needs to invent an artificial brain that learns, and pattern recognition is the key.  Vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell are all sensory inputs that process patterns.  The brain appears to be general purpose enough to adapt the same kind of physical neural structures to handle each of these sensory pattern types.  Are we, that is our minds or our souls, a byproduct of pattern recognition?  What abilities do Alex the parrot have that scales up to become us?  Alex can hear questions, observe something in his field of view, and reply correct.  Do you see that trait in the robot films?

Spend some time and watch the film of Alex over and over.  Also watch the robot films carefully too.  Do you see patterns of behavior?

JWH 1/21/9