It’s a story for everyone from Apple addicts to ape lovers.
According to “Apps for apes: Orangutans want iPads for Christmas,” published by New Scientist on December 28th, orangs at the Milwaukee zoo are gaga over the gadget.
It makes a feel-good story, especially as spun by the article’s author, Julian Smith.
But there’s more potential, and more to think about, than how cute the big orange apes look when they try out the latest apps.
When a local man donated his old iPad (for Apple addicts, as soon as a new product is released, everything else that the company has ever produced is instantly “old” and must be replaced immediately) to the zoo, the gorillas weren’t interested. But the orangutans were hooked.
As word spread of the success of the experiment, other zoos clambered to get on board with the hot new electronic captive primate toy. “Apps for apes” even speculates about the potential social impact of “Apesbook,” which may be a way to relieve the boredom that plagues captive orangutans. Electronic “play dates” could be arranged so that orangs from different zoos could be “friended” by distant conspecifics.
And animal conservationists like the story, on the grounds that any positive publicity for these endangered primates has to be good.
This isn’t the first time that apes have had regular interface with computers, and so far orangs and iPads are teaming up for entertainment, not research.
OK, that’s all pretty cute stuff. What surprised me about the New Scientist article was its exclusive focus on cute rather than science. The article could have been published by Parade, for all the thoughtfulness that went into it.
A lot of interesting speculation was missed, if you ask me.
Along with the obvious investigations into ape psychology that could be made possible by computer-using primates, and the equally obvious opportunity for communication between orangs and humans via iPad, there are other intriguing if more farfetched possibilities.
Hard as it is for us to do, how about taking ourselves out of the equation? What if our role were the more humble position of mediator or matchmaker?
What might happen when an orangutan in Wisconsin and a dolphin in Florida get together on their iPads and start playing games together? If the orang fingerpaints a picture of a banana, will the dolphin interpret it as another dolphin and paint a fish that it can eat?
That may be a ridiculous thought, but not quite so silly is the underlying question of whether inter-species contact via computer might not one day give us new insights into the different kinds of intelligence that different kinds of animals possess.
If an orangutan can understand us, to some extent, and we can understand dolphins, to some extent, how well might orangutans and dolphins understand each other?
We have the cognitive imagination and technological culture needed to communicate with other animals, and we’re off to a good start on doing just that.
Could we not someday be the virtual shadchen for creatures who otherwise would never have the means to interact anywhere else than on the food chain?
Serious scientists (not just bloviating bloggers) are interested in the question of how, or if, species who live in different physical worlds share enough experience to understand each other.
What kind of “self” does a marine mammal have? Is it entirely different to the identity experienced by a flying bird?
A more serious New Scientist article, “Enter a dolphin’s fluid, hyper-social consciousness,” published on December 27th, features a dialogue between two scientists who are deeply involved in just this kind of thinking.
Author Jeff Warren reports on a conversation between comparative neuroanatomist Lori Marino and mathematician and AI expert Ben Goertzel.
Goertzel has written about how consciousness might be different if it evolved in a fluid, rather than an open, airy environment. “I was thinking about how human psychology is adapted to solid objects: stuff bouncing off other stuff, resulting in the psychology of causation.”
You also get the decomposition of wholes into parts. But if you grew up on Jupiter, where the environment consists of fluids of different viscosity and intersecting vortices and solitons, you might have a very different psychology. Our language is based on assembling units, but not all meaningful communication may be that way – that’s why cetacean communication is so important.
This has been discussed as explaining why we haven’t “cracked” communication in dolphins. We think in discrete terms because that’s the kind of animal we are, we research a whistle repertoire for dolphins and try to figure out what the whistles mean as discrete sounds. It hasn’t got us that far. It may be that we are going down the wrong path.
When we describe something we make it precise, divide it into parts, recombine it – that’s how we build words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. Dolphin language may harmonise with a quite different way of thinking about the world. Maybe the two ways are complementary, like waves and particles in quantum mechanics. Or maybe they are completely incommensurable perspectives.
Does this mean that speculation like this is doomed to be fruitless? Warren isn’t so negative:
what is shared and what is distinct? For me, there is a pith of oneness between life forms, and also a multiplicity of difference. I look at a dolphin and know about the feeling of water, of having a body. It’s different, but there is an embodied overlap, a shared world.
So next time you’re sitting on a bench in the park, playing “Angry Birds,” offer your tablet to the crow that’s been watching you from the branch above for the last ten minutes.
Who knows. He may turn out to be a better shot.