February 24, 2006

TED, Day 2... Dissecting Einstein's Brain. [update]

An African gray parrot named "Einstein", apparently the speakin-est parrot in all the land, gave a talk today at TED; which is to say a (very pretty) zoo trainer ("Stephanie") fed Einstein lines and she responded with her large vocabulary of sounds effects and words, at which point Stephanie fed her sunflower seeds.

It really was incredible; not in the ways that it emulated a real conversation, but in the ways that it didn't. The times that Einstein balked were the most interesting, because it was clear the bird had its own ideas about things and wasn't always in the mood to cooperate. However, Einstein's a slave to the seed, so in the end she'd always cave.

For example, when Stephanie asked about the other animals at the zoo, Einstein was all, "honk honk" for, say, the sheep. Staphanie would say, "No, seriously, sheep" and Einstein would finally go "baaah."

Eventually the trainer is all, "Fine, you clearly want to talk about the penguins, let's hear 'em!" and Einstein goes "honk honk" and then she had it out of her system and did the other animals first time.

She did the same thing with another joke, spoiling it by giving the punchline really early, clearly because she liked it. Stephanie is all, "So, do you like to fly?" and Einstein is all, "AAaaa-flack!", which is pretty fucking funny even out of contest, but then finally she gets to the real line, which is, "If only we had some insurance!" and Einstein's all, "AAAAAAA-FLACK!"

Like, clearly this was a gray parrot who liked her some Aflack.

The other funny part was at the end, Stephanie asked Einstein to dance, and Einstein fluffed herself up and kind of clucked. And Stephanie is all, "No, come on, really dance... you know!" and the bird's just like, "Cluck, cluck" and fluff, fluff. Finally Stephanie is all "You're going to make me dance, aren't you," clearly embarrassed to have to dance in front of all these people for her parrot, but the bird just keeps clucking, so Stephanie starts dancing a bit, and Einstein moves a TINY bit, and so Stephanie bobs her head around, and the bird starts doing a big bob and actually dancing.

[UPDATE: Here's footage from the next day. At the end you can hear me laughing.]

I just loved the way this bird totally controlled her trainers. It turns out Einstein often has favorite words that she has to get out of her system, but they aren't always the same word. This struck me as pretty neat.


I talked to the zoo folks afterwards at the nightly TED party. Stephanie's boss Evan is a young-looking, laid-back guy who knows which one of them the cameras love, plus Einstein likes Stephanie best and talks for her more. I told Stephanie if she could swim farther out into the bay than me in the freezing cold I'd make a sizable donation to the Knoxville zoo, but her ichthyophobia, frigophobia, and possibly gymnophobia blocked my purely altruistic offer. We all talked about conservation and depression and nature and eventually they asked me if I'd like to hang with Einstein, and I'm like, hells yah.

So we went and visited Einstein at her hotel room, and I got some first-hand insights into the mind of a parrot. Or, at least, this parrot, who is, frankly, pure evil, but with fluffy feathers.

Einstein has two modes, which are "hungry" and "bitey," and she'd just been fed. They ran through a bunch of her queue words, but she wouldn't peep. It turns out that this isn't a parrot who responds for the fun of it; if you want a performance, you better have seeds, and she better be hungry. Otherwise, no talky. They waved around sunflower seeds, and Einstein was certainly willing to take them, but she sure wasn't hungry enough to prostitute herself for them.

"Do you starve her for like a week before a show?" I asked. Evan said yes, but then amended his answer to no when he realized I might think he was serious. (Note to animal lovers: the real answer is no. They love that bird like crazy.)

"Come on, do cat, Einstein! If she doesn't do cat, she won't do anything!" Well, she wasn't going to do anything.

I've had some experience around birds so I risked putting my hand up to the cage to pet Einstein. This was a smart bird. She looked at me with one malevolent eye and then turned away and put the back of her head against the bars so I could scratch it.

Stephanie was all, "Watch out, because she's probably just trying to..."

CHOMP! Einstein flipped her head around and tried to take a chunk of my finger. However, years of Nintendo have left me faster, if not smarter, than the African gray, and I was safely away. Nice try, you evil non-talking bird. "You're too slow, Einstein," I taunted her. "You know what they call slow parrots? DINNER." Stephanie was mortified, so I don't think I scored a lot of points there. Call me Mr. Sensitive.

We played that game a couple more times until I decided I was probably training the bird in a way that wouldn't go over well when others met her.

Einstein apparently does sounds on her own to match the trainers' actions; things she hasn't been trained to do or rewarded for, but just thinks it's fun to point out. Apparently when they shut off the lights at night, for example, all three parrots will call out "Good night!" on their own. And, when Stephanie gets out a tissue, Einstein will start making sneezing and snot-horking noises. (I was frankly shocked that hadn't made it into the act, because I think it would kill on stage.)

As I talked with the zoopersons about matters zoological, Einstein started clucking and cooing and making all matter of noises, like a child who has suddenly lost the spotlight and finds herself missing the attention. I casually put my leather shoe within chomping range of the cage. Einstein started sidling over to where my shoe was, and then sloooowly stuck her beak through the bars. Of course, all I had to do was pull my foot back an inch and she was foiled. And mad. M-A-D. This parrot had clearly once tasted human blood and had liked it.


I believe I convinced them, before I left, to take Einstein to the remaining party as a clever fund-rasing ruse for all the assembled billionaires, so if you read that L.P. or Sergey have lost a finger, you'll know why.



Anonymous David Brandon said...

I worked with Alex, another well educated African Grey, and I agree with your assessment of these birds: evil. I mean Alex can be sweet. Sort of. But he's just as likely to try to kill you. I think there are two issues. First, they are birds. And birds are alien creatures that look down on us mammals. Second, they're too smart to enjoy being held captive. This makes them cranky. The thing you didn't get to experience is that they can also make an amazing racket. I was in an office with Alex and his two compatriots (and two grad students) and we had to wear ear protectors -- the kind airport workers wear around jet engines.

Anyway, enjoyed hearing about Einstein.

February 24, 2006 5:41 AM

Blogger tmhawk said...

Wil! So tell us, when are you and Stephanie going out? :-)

February 24, 2006 4:27 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember a cockatiel that a housemate of mine had once.. That bird would leave you alone to watch TV or something, but if you were on the phone, forget it. I still have no idea how it was able to make so much noise with such a tiny lung volume to work with.


February 24, 2006 8:31 PM

Anonymous Robert Smelser said...

My wife and I have one parrot and two conures, and man can they fill the house with noise. They sing; they dance; one occasionally looks possessed, and two can scream loud enough to be heard outside!

Still, they make for great pets if you are willing to put in the effort to care for them properly. They are very smart, and they need a lot of attention to avoid birdy-neurosis. You can see pics of our feathered friends (and other assorted pets) on our site in the personal section!

(By the way, I agree with Brandon: our Cleo definitely looks down upon mammals with disdain!)

February 24, 2006 9:21 PM

Anonymous James said...

That's really cool. How typical of African Greys is Einstein?

Forget code, you need to write about stuff like this more often. :-)

February 25, 2006 11:09 PM

Anonymous Alex said...

Holy crap that video made my week

February 26, 2006 8:41 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a bird brain....I meant that female.

February 27, 2006 1:37 AM

Blogger Wil Shipley said...

Einstein is female.

February 27, 2006 1:55 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

" How typical of African Greys is Einstein?"

I don't know if Einstein is exceptional, but African Greys are supposed to be the smartest bird, rivaled only by ravens.

February 27, 2006 11:50 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was rather entertained by the post about Einstein. We here at Ambrosia Software (www.ambrosiasw.com) also have an African Grey Parrot who is the mascot (and also boss) of the company. While the birds name is Hector, a few years back after doing genetic testing we found out Hector was really Hectorette. Our little birdy friend was actually a lady indisguise. She of course backed up these claims by laying an egg shortly after the tests were completed to prove to us the futility of spending money. The employees of Ambrosia are all in agreement that these birds, while smart, are also very very evil. They look down upon us all from their lofty perches. They frown upon us and squawk horrible trills to insult us mammals. While our bird is smart, with her ability to recreate the sounds of someone walking down the hall, knocking on the metal door, turning the nob, the hinges squeeking, and of course an assortment of voices saying "Can I come in?", she still is not as receptive as einstein. She says things when she wants to.

February 28, 2006 1:31 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was sitting in my office reading about Einstein (instead of working) and laughing so hard I thought my boss would surely walk in, or at least the person in the next office. I babysat an African Gray for a friend (he is still with me after 7 years). Evil? Yes, I totally agree, but love him and give him up, NOT a chance. Thanks for a great article, I thought mine as the only little Devil in the world. I feel much better knowing he is like the rest. This is a parrot who will try to bite me, and yet will very gently take a sunflower seed out of hand. Mine has as big vocabulary,but will usually only talk if I am not in his presence. Thanks again.

April 13, 2006 8:37 AM

Blogger Pat said...

Thanks for sharing that! I have three African Grays. Two Congo Grays like Einstein and a Timneh Gray. They are the best companions I have ever had in my home.
They are noisey. They are messy. They will test your limits. But if a Gray chooses you as it's companion, you have made a wonderous friend indeed!

May 30, 2006 3:44 AM

Anonymous junior rules said...

Are Greys a feathered version of the Devil? Heck no! Like humans, each bird has its own personality and intelligence level. My Timneh had numerous owners before I became his caretaker nine years ago. It took 50 weeks to the day he was given to me that his trust became apparent. 'Junior' as I named him (and had him sexed too!) is the perfect companion. His trust deepened once he realize his wing feathers grew back and could fly.

Maybe I have the most non-neurotic Grey because he sits atop his cage and is free to go in and out as he pleases, he is not 'locked up'. And no, he does not chew any furniture and I have plenty of Victorian Rocco furniture he could easily destroy. The key to co-existing with a parrot is to stimulate its brain with wooden toys, baby toys and conversation. When you can see the pupils of any birds eyes dialate it's a good indication they are worked up and will bite. Mine is no different and whenever I see his pupils rapidly get large then small, then it's time to be out of his reach or else a nasty bite or an impromptu body piercing is in store. Ouch, for sure and this is not evil behavior but rather it's their way of letting you know you've been bad to them. They are very smart and to ignore them is among the cruelest things to do. Birds in general are social creatures and to keep one caged and alone for most of the day is a horrible fate. I'd bet serious money the couple that gave Einstein to the Knoxville Zoo weren't able to spend the time interacting the bird that it really needed. From my experince, Junior (one of the last wild Greys) needed his space when he came into my life and many 'an expert' told me he was only good for breeding, boy were they wrong. Junior talks as good as Einstien, dances, sings and knows he has a caretaker who is there for him for life. Parrots are not toys, think of them as cats having the ability to talk and fly. It's a special bond if a parrot does what you ask of it, and you call this evil? Take a good look at a human for evil behavior.

June 21, 2006 6:59 PM

Blogger flutterbug said...

I agree with david, African Greys are so smart that they have to be constantly stimulated. Their "evil" attitude is legend - but I wonder if it's because they resent being held captive. They haven't done anything to deserve being put in "Jail"- heck, I'd want revenge against my captors, too.

I have a talking lory, and I have to admit that I love her because she loves to play, she's affectionate and good natured. She'll make a toy out of anything, and she makes me laugh every day. She's fearless, curious and clever, and although she's very messy and can be loud, that's a small price to pay for a pet who tries to grasp MY language, and often uses it perfectly in context. Sometimes it really freaks me out that she knows the appropriate words to ask for what she wants. Think about it - I can't speak "bird" at all, but she knows dozens of English words - does that make her bilingual?

September 08, 2006 8:49 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like that bird in the clip.

October 17, 2006 11:31 AM


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