ALISON STEWART, host:
There were deep thinkers, authors, scientists. The usual suspects. Yeah, that should be Al Gore. There were all in attendance in the 2008 TED Conference which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, just wraps up in Monterey, California.
It's a meeting of the minds and those who have $6,000 to attend to discuss ideas and watch presenters communicate their big ideas in just 18 minutes. Ideas like the one Josh Klein had - to harness the cognitive abilities of crows.
Mr. JOSH KLEIN (Inventor, Crow Vending Machine): So I'm going to talk first about why crows are better than flying monkey and then I'm going to tell you how to train them to do your bidding since that's a burning question that's all in our minds.
STEWART: I don't know. Flying monkeys are pretty great at doing you bidding especially when you want some shoes.
(Soundbite of Movie, "The Wizard of Oz")
Ms. MARGARET HAMILTON (Actress): (As The Wicked Witch of the West) Take special care of those ruby slippers. I want those most of all. Now fly. Fly.
STEWART: My gosh.
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
(Unintelligible) she scared them.
STEWART: Makes a pretty good case that the birds may, you know, be your better bet than a flying monkey. Never really seen one of those anyway.
Josh Klein, self-described hacker of technology, social networks and otherwise unexploited systems joins us now.
Mr. KLEIN: Hey there.
STEWART: So you presented at TED. Explain to us what exactly you invented that uses the smarts of crows?
Mr. KLEIN: Well, it's a vending machine. So it trains crows to pick up change off the ground that they find just lying around and then deposit it in exchange for a peanut.
STEWART: First of all, crows like peanuts?
Mr. KLEIN: Well, they like anything they can get really.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: Now, explain to me the Skinnerian training principles that you use. The reward methodology.
Mr. KLEIN: Well, this actually started because it turns out that Skinnerian training has sort of evolved into something called a clicker training, which is really popular these days for training dogs and cats and the like. And it worked really well on our cat to train it to use the toilet. So that made me think that we might be used - it would be used on crows.
STEWART: Because you taught your cat to use the toilet. That's another segment for another time.
Mr. KLEIN: Yeah.
STEWART: Okay, so…
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: Explain to me how this worked out. You gave the crow his coins and then you took the coins away. Explain to me the methodology.
Mr. KLEIN: Okay, so it's four steps. And in the first few steps we basically provide them with coins and peanuts and get them used to the machine. And then in the third step we only give them coins at which point that that really frustrates them because they were getting really used to having the peanuts. So they bang around on the box until the coins call down the hole underneath the food tray and then we give them a peanut. And this goes on until they recognize that in order to get a peanut, they have to show up, get a coin, put the coin in the hole and then get their peanut. And then eventually, we stopped giving them anything. And they have to look around and they find the coins that was scattered all around the machine. And that's where we see the difference between crows and other animals. Most other animals like a squirrel would hop up, you know, look around for peanut, leave, come back maybe half a dozen times and then go on from play traffic. But a crow, try and figure it out. And will usually hop down, grab a coin that was scattered around and then put it in the hole at which point would get another peanut.
STEWART: So the crows took the mental leap?
Mr. KLEIN: Yup.
STEWART: So, which came first, the concept of the machine or your knowledge that crows were really smart and you wanted to test the limits of their brain power?
Mr. KLEIN: The concept, definitely. This actually came to me about 10 years ago at a cocktail party.
STEWART: A boring party?
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
Yeah. You have to give us more than that.
STEWART: What was going on at the party that made you think about this?
Mr. KLEIN: So me and a friend of mine were at this party rather late and he was commenting that there were all these crows all over the place. This is in Seattle and there are a lot of crow there. And he was saying that someone aught to go and kill them all because they're a big hassle. And I said that was crazy. Someone aught to tell them, you know, teach them to do something useful. And he told me that was impossible. And that really gets under my skin when people tell me something isn't possible, so.
STEWART: I understand that. So there'd you go about researching crows?
Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. I start of as just sort of this idol fancy where I started paying attention to them in the, you know, in the parks and went our a little bit. And then I noticed an article and, you know, then eventually started -you know, I picked up a book at Barnes & Noble and then I found myself in a library. It just sort of snowballed.
STEWART: So one of the things I found as I went down the same crow rabbit hole, sort of, that you did, researching crows, is that in terms of their size of their brain to their body compared to other living beings, other animals, birds, mammals, it's huge.
Mr. KLEIN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it's equivalent to the chimpanzee.
STEWART: So why isn't anybody harnessed crows before? Are they ornery?
Mr. KLEIN: Well they are ornery. That's definitely true. But I think the main thing is that for the longest time, scientist have believed that animals are deterministic. That they're machines. And that they just got to their programming and if you do something outside of that programming, then they won't be able to handle it.
STEWART: But the crows - and also in my research on crows - that they're skill makers, they're tool makers.
Mr. KLEIN: Mm-hmm.
STEWART: And that they can also be quite manipulative. Did you see that in your study?
Mr. KLEIN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It's pretty wild, actually. One crow that we've been working with in Brooklyn name Pepper will try and steal things from you. And you don't notice, then it will parade back and forth in front of you with the item until you do notice and get upset. And then he'll fly away so he can laugh at you. And he actually does laugh at you.
STEWART: So one thing - I want to go back to your experiment. You said that you've ultimately get the crows to the point. They're smart and they realize, oh, if I pick up this shiny thing on the ground and I put this in this vending machine, I'm going to get a peanut, something to eat. Could they actually tell the difference between various coins?
Mr. KLEIN: I don't see why not. We know - Dr. Martha of the University of Washington has done experiments where he's taken a regular paper bag of garbage and put it in, you know, your normal paper bag of garbage, put it on the lawn and then put a McDonalds bag with garbage and put it on the lawn. And the crows go to the McDonalds bag nine times out of 10.
Mr. KLEIN: So, if they've got brand loyalty, they can figure out…
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: We're talking to Josh Klein. He's a self-described hacker of technology, social networks and otherwise un exploited systems. He presented at TED a vending machine for crows and made the people in the audience - I guess you made them believers that crows could figure out how to use this vending machine.
All right, so how do you extrapolate your findings into some bigger, greater good?
Mr. KLEIN: Well, the idea that all these is grounded in is that there are all these synanthropic species, that's species that have adapted to human ecology. An that include like rats and cockroaches and raccoons and all these, you know, pest. And what we're doing is we're trying to kill them all because they're rather a hassle. But in doing so, we're effectively breeding them for parasitism. So, you know, cockroaches are becoming more immune to our poisons and rats are becoming really responsive breeders. The idea that I had was that we aught to put systems in place that are mutually beneficial so that we can establish some sort of positive equilibrium with these species.
STEWART: So what would be a positive? How would you harness the crows powers for a positive?
Mr. KLEIN: Well, you could train then to pick up garbage after a big stadium event for example. Or maybe sort for valuable electronic components among discarded electronics, or, you know, there's even potential for search and rescue.
STEWART: Search and rescue of?
Mr. KLEIN: Of people. It turns out that crows can recognize individuals.
Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. They did this project some years ago at University of Washington where some grad students went out and capture some crows on campus and weigh them and measure them and what not may go of them. And we're delighted to discover that for the rest of the week, whenever those individual students would walk through campus, the crows would raise a big ruckus and fly around and cause trouble. They were not so delighted when this went on all the way through the next month and then after summer break and then after they graduated and came back much later. So now all those students on campus that are studying crows are doing so with a big wig and a giant mask.
STEWART: So we find that crows are manipulative, a little bit stalkery...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: And could save the world.
STEWART: And can save the world, possibly.
Mr. KLEIN: That's right. Don't date the crows, just let them save you.
STEWART: Josh Klein is inventor of the crow vending machine. We'll link some cool video of your work on our blog, npr.org/bryantpark. Thanks a lot, Josh.
Mr. KLEIN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Thanks, Josh.