Can parrots converse? Polly says that's the wrong question.

Half a century ago, one of the hottest questions in science was whether humans could teach animals to talk. Scientists have tried using sign language to converse with monkeys and have trained parrots to use ever-growing English vocabularies.

The work quickly attracted media attention and controversy. The research lacked rigor, critics argued, and what appeared to be animal communication could simply have been wishful thinking, with researchers unconsciously causing their animals to respond in certain ways..

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the search fell out of favor. “The whole camp is completely disintegrated,” said Irene Pepperberg, a comparative cognition researcher at Boston University who has become known for her work with an African gray parrot named Alex.

Today, technological advances and a growing appreciation for the sophistication of animal minds have renewed interest in finding ways to bridge the gap between species. Pet owners are teaching their dogs to press “talking buttons” and zoos are training their monkeys to use touch screens.

In a cautious new paper, a team of scientists outlines a framework for evaluating whether such tools could offer animals new ways to express themselves. The research is designed “to overcome some of the issues that have been controversial in the past,” said Jennifer Cunha, a research associate at Indiana University.

The paper, which will be presented at a scientific conference on Tuesday, focuses on Ms Cunha's pet, an 11-year-old Goffin's cockatoo named Ellie. Since 2019, Ms. Cunha has been teaching Ellie to use an interactive “voice board,” a tablet-based app that contains more than 200 illustrated icons, corresponding to words and phrases including “sunflower seeds,” “happy” and ” I feel”. hot.” When Ellie taps on a tongue icon, a computer voice says the word or phrase aloud.

In the new study, Ms. Cunha and her colleagues did not set out to determine whether Ellie's use of the whiteboard amounted to communication. Instead, they used quantitative and computational methods to analyze Ellie's icon presses to learn more about whether the voice panel had what they called “expressive and enriching potential.”

“How can we analyze the expression to see if there might be a space for intention or communication?” Ms. Cunha said. “And then secondly, the question is, could his selections give us insight into his values, the things he finds meaningful?”

Scientists analyzed nearly 40 hours of video footage, collected over seven months, of Ellie using the voice board. Then, they compared her pressing icons to several simulations of a hypothetical voiceboard user randomly selecting icons.

“In the end they were all significantly different in multiple places from the real data,” said Nikhil Singh, a doctoral student at MIT who created the models. “The virtual user we had wasn't able to fully capture what the real Ellie was doing when she was using this tablet.”

In other words, whatever Ellie was doing, it didn't appear to be just smashing random icons. The researchers found that the design of the voice panel, including the brightness and position of the icons, failed to fully explain Ellie's selections.

Determining whether Ellie's selections were random or not “is a great place to start,” she said Federico Rossano, a comparative cognition researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the research. “The problem is that randomness is very unlikely.”

Just because Ellie wasn't hitting the icons randomly doesn't mean she was actively and deliberately trying to communicate her true desires or feelings, Dr. Rossano said. She may have simply been repeating sequences learned during training. “You're like a vending machine,” she said. “You can learn to press a sequence of numbers and get a certain type of reward. That doesn't mean you're thinking about what you're doing.

To further probe the possibilities, the research team then looked for signs of what they called “confirmation.” If Ellie had selected the apple icon, would she have eaten the apple she was given? If you selected a reading icon, did you stay engaged with the book for at least one minute?

“You can give something to a bird and they will throw it or touch it,” Ms. Cunha said. “But for us it was: Is she committed?”

Not all of Ellie's choices could be evaluated this way; it was impossible for the researchers to determine, for example, whether she felt truly happy or hot at any given moment. But of the nearly 500 icon prints evaluated, 92 percent were confirmed by Ellie's subsequent behavior.

“It's clear that they have a good correlation,” said Dr. Pepperberg, who was not involved in the research.

But proving that Ellie truly understands what the icons mean will require further testing, he said, suggesting that researchers deliberately try to bring Ellie the wrong object. to see how he responds. “It's just another check to make sure the animal really has this understanding of what the label represents,” Dr. Pepperberg said.

Finally, the researchers sought to assess whether the voice board served as a form of enrichment for Ellie by analyzing the types of icons she selected most frequently.

“If it is a means to an end, what is the end?” said Rébecca Kleinberger, study author and researcher at Northeastern University, where she studies how animals interact with technology. “It seems like there was a bias towards social activity or activity that means staying in interaction with the caretaker.”

According to the researchers, about 14 percent of the time, Ellie selected icons for food, drink, or treats. On the other hand, about 73% of her selections corresponded to activities that provided social or cognitive enrichment, such as playing, visiting another bird, or simply communicating with Ms. Cunha. Ellie also started using the voice board 85% of the time.

“Ellie the cockatoo interacted consistently with her device, suggesting that it remained engaging and reinforcing for her to do so for several months,” said Amalia Bastos, a comparative cognition researcher at Johns Hopkins University, who was not an author of the article.

The study has limitations. There is a limit to what scientists can extrapolate from a single animal, and it is difficult to rule out the possibility that Ms. Cunha may have subconsciously cued Ellie to respond in certain ways, outside experts said. But scientists also praised the researchers' systematic approach and modest claims.

“They don't say, 'Can the parrot talk?'” Dr. Rossano said. “They're saying, 'Can this be used for enrichment?'”

Dr. Bastos agreed. “This work is a crucial first step,” he said. It's also an example of how the industry has changed, for the better, since the 1970s.

“Researchers currently working in the area are not bringing the same hypotheses to the table,” Dr. Bastos said. “We don't expect animals to understand or use language the way humans do.” Instead, he added, scientists are interested in using communication tools to “improve the well-being of captive animals and their relationships with their caregivers.”

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