Researchers in Germany have shown that cognitive abilities among four-month-old ravens are about equal to that of great apes at the same age.
The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, hopes to add to our understanding of how cognitive intelligence develops in different species and perhaps even help develop new forms of AI.
The study, led by Professor Simone Pika, head of comparative bio-cognition at the University of Osnabrück, took hand-reared ravens through a battery of cognitive tests developed by Esther Herrmann and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for comparing the development of great apes with humans.
It found that in performing the same tasks, albeit adapted for their physical abilities and size, the cognitive performance of ravens showed their understanding of the physical world and how they interact with other ravens may be similar to those of adult great apes.
At four, eight, 12 and 16 months of age, the birds were tested on spatial memory, object permanence – understanding that an object still exists when it is out of sight – understanding relative numbers and addition, and the ability to communicate with and learn from a human experimenter.
The study found that their performance was similar from four to 16 months, suggesting that the speed at which the ravens’ cognitive skills develop is relatively rapid and near-to-complete by four months of age. The corvids generally performed best in tasks testing addition and understanding of relative numbers and worst in tasks testing spatial memory.
The researchers were able to compare the birds’ performance to that of 106 chimpanzees and 32 orangutangs who completed similar tasks in a previous study, and discovered the cognitive performance of the birds was very similar to those of the apes, with the exception of spatial memory.
Speaking to The Register, Professor Simone Pika said the corvid family of bird, to which ravens belong, are famed for their intelligence, both in the scientific literature and in folklore. They’ve even been known to have fun, as a viral Youtube clip of a crow apparently skiing down a roof shows.
But the abilities of ravens at such a young age did surprise the researchers, she said. “They can fly around and start to look for their own food but they are still highly dependent on their parents. What we found [was their cognitive ability] stayed relatively stable across the whole developmental time span, so it seems that they really need to be ready at the age of four months to engage and manoeuvre through their ecology and social environment.”
While the study did not compare birds directly with humans - human cognition is similar to that of great apes at a young age - it was a fairly reasonable qualitative comparison to say that young humans and ravens had similar abilities in some areas. However, children have more sophisticated cognitive skills than the ape species for dealing with the social world, according to Herrmann's earlier study.
But why study bird-brained cognition in the first place? Prof Pika said while much of the studies of animal cognition focused on how other species compare with humans, that may be “a little bit egocentric”.
“I'm a biologist, I work also with chimpanzees in the wild, in Gabon, and I can just look at them and watch how they interact with their environment, how they interact with each other, how they communicate and how they solve problems. On its own, the variety and diversity of species and their cognitive abilities on this planet is fascinating,” she said.
In fact, the team at the University of Osnabrück is looking at how an understanding of animals' cognitive abilities might help in AI research into robot-human interaction.
The problem with developing AIs based on human cognition is that human language may be “too huge and too complicated”, in that it involves intentionality and huge amounts of social knowledge.
“Maybe more simple communication structures [used by animals] can really help us to inform this human-AI interaction,” she said.
To that end, she told The Reg, the team is starting a project called Communicative interaction: From non-human communication to artificial interactive systems. ®