Insight & Analysis

Advanced AI using same system as a pigeon

Published: Mar 2023

A latest study has found the way pigeons learn is very similar to how humans teach artificial intelligence (AI) – although the birds operate at a much smaller scale.

Researchers looking into the inner workings of the pigeon’s brain found the “brute force” techniques they use to learn share similarities with AI.

AI is taught to identify patterns and objects recognised by humans and the research team at the University of Iowa in the US discovered pigeons also rely on this repetitive, trial-and-error approach.

During the tests each pigeon was shown a stimulus, showing a different pattern, which the birds then had to categorise by pecking one of two buttons.

They had to do this based on characteristics such as line width, line angle, and how the patterns were arranged. A correct answer gave the birds a tasty pellet, but an incorrect response gave nothing. Eventually, the pigeons memorised enough of them to score almost 70%.

“You hear all the time about the wonders of AI, all the amazing things it can do,” said Professor Ed Wasserman, from the university’s Psychology and Brain Sciences Department. “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.”

This way of learning through recognition is known as associative learning, whilst humans normally rely on declarative learning.

As an example, most of us don’t need to touch a hot stove to know it will hurt – whereas something that relies on associative learning would.

Professor Wasserman went on to say: “People are wowed by AI doing amazing things using a learning algorithm, much like the pigeon. When people talk about associative learning in humans and animals, it is discounted as rigid and unsophisticated.”

Where computers go way beyond pigeons is in their enormous memory and storage capabilities, allowing them to process and store far more information than a pigeon brain ever could.

Ultimately however, the way they learn is very much the same.

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