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2004-04-02

Meet N'kisi the talking parrot 

N'kisi is a captive-bred African grey parrot, who has allegedly mastered an English vocabulary of 950 words and uses it creatively, as his owner claims. The story has been on BBC news and N'kisi also has a homepage. Experiments have been performed that purportedly show that N'kisi is capable of telepathic communication with his owner, reading from her mind what she is seeing on a picture hidden from his view.

The owner is an artist who has spent many hours every day with the parrot in training (N'kisi is apparently around six years old now), on a science-art project that is trying to break the ground for better "interspecies communication". There is a really impressive audio recording with transcription available.

Something seems fishy, or at least exaggerated here - what? The claims of N'kisi's creativity are unverifiable from the given evidence. Imagine a dumb acoustic pattern recognition system that is exposed to a single human speaker for thousands of hours. The task of the system is to play back audio material it received earlier, depending on the incoming stimulus (it has learned that by fulfilling this task, it can maintain its energy support). The system has some capability of chunking the audio, to break it up into segments based on a measure of relative prominence (energy or frequency distributions in the audio signal), and to reassemble segments with some degree of fuzziness. We also must assume that the system can process visual information and correlate it with the acoustic information in combined chunks. These assumptions suffice, I think, to explain everything that is in the audio recording and in the quoted examples of N'kisis alleged creativity or understanding capability (though it does not explain the telepathy). What seems like creativity are really just memory errors; what seems like understanding is the effect of a very well-trained statistical memory of previous interactions.

On balance, I believe that N'kisi is neither creative nor understands or means what he says. He must still be an amazing pet to have around!


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