(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘animals

“Sheer dumb sentience”*…

The eyes of the conch snail

As the power of AI grows, we find ourselves searching for a way to tell it might– or has– become sentient. Kristen Andrews and Jonathan Birch suggest that we should look to the minds of animals…

… Last year, [Google engineer Blake] Lemoine leaked the transcript [of an exchange he’d had with LaMDA, a Google AI system] because he genuinely came to believe that LaMDA was sentient – capable of feeling – and in urgent need of protection.

Should he have been more sceptical? Google thought so: they fired him for violation of data security policies, calling his claims ‘wholly unfounded’. If nothing else, though, the case should make us take seriously the possibility that AI systems, in the very near future, will persuade large numbers of users of their sentience. What will happen next? Will we be able to use scientific evidence to allay those fears? If so, what sort of evidence could actually show that an AI is – or is not – sentient?

The question is vast and daunting, and it’s hard to know where to start. But it may be comforting to learn that a group of scientists has been wrestling with a very similar question for a long time. They are ‘comparative psychologists’: scientists of animal minds.

We have lots of evidence that many other animals are sentient beings. It’s not that we have a single, decisive test that conclusively settles the issue, but rather that animals display many different markers of sentience. Markers are behavioural and physiological properties we can observe in scientific settings, and often in our everyday life as well. Their presence in animals can justify our seeing them as having sentient minds. Just as we often diagnose a disease by looking for lots of symptoms, all of which raise the probability of having that disease, so we can look for sentience by investigating many different markers…

On learning from our experience of animals to assess AI sentience: “What has feelings?” from @KristinAndrewz and @birchlse in @aeonmag.

Apposite: “The Future of Human Agency” (a Pew round-up of expert opinion on the future impact of AI)

Provocative in a resonant way: “The Philosopher Who Believes in Living Things.”

* Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312


As we talk to the animals, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to J. P. Guilford; he was born on this date in 1897. A psychologist, he’s best remembered as a developer and practitioner of psychometrics, the quantitative measurement of subjective psychological phenomena (such sensation, personality, attention).

Guilford’s Structure of Intellect (SI) theory rejected the view that intelligence could be characterized in a single numerical parameter. He proposed that three dimensions were necessary for accurate description: operations, content, and products.

Guilford also developed the concepts of “convergent” and “divergent” thinking, as part of work he did emphasizing the importance of creativity in industry, science, arts, and education, and in urging more research into it nature.

Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Guilford as the 27th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.


“Insofar as we have power over the world and over one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature.”*…

James Bridle’s remarkable new book, Ways of Being-Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence, explores the many types of intelligences that exist in the more-than-human world around us. In a fascinating interview with Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Bridle elaborates…

I knew, setting out to do this, that I would have to at some point, as a writer about intelligence, define what I meant by intelligence. But I was very frustrated by the lack of what seemed to me to be clear, good definitions of what it is we’re all talking about. You can get all these lists of what people mean when they talk about intelligence, and it’s a kind of grab bag of different qualities that changes all the time: things like planning, counterfactual imagining or coming up with scenarios, theories of mind, tool use, all these different qualities. People pick from them according to whatever their particular field is, but they all come from a human perspective. That seemed to me to be what actually united almost all our common discussions about intelligence: that it was just whatever humans did. And so all our discussions about other potential forms of intelligence, other intelligences that we encountered in the world, or intelligences that we imagined, were all framed in terms of how we understood ourselves and our own thinking. It really struck me that this became an incredibly limiting factor in how we were thinking about intelligence more broadly—and not just intelligence, really, but all relationships we have in the world that are so often mediated by our own intelligence. On the one hand this has restricted our ability to recognize the intelligences of other beings—and I think we’ll probably come to that—but it’s also deeply shaped our history of technology, and particularly AI…

So much more at: “An Ecological Technology– An Interview with James Bridle“; @jamesbridle in @emergence_zine.

* Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore


As we investigate intelligence inclusively, we might recall that it was on this date in 1878 that the first telephone directory was issued. Consisting of a single piece of cardboard, it listed 50 individuals, businesses, and other offices in New Haven, Connecticut that had telephones.  There were, as readers will note on the photo below, no numbers, as callers had to be connected by an operator.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 21, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Oh, if I could talk to the animals, just imagine it”*…

Researchers are decoding the language of elephants

Digital technology is enabling scientists to detect and interpret the sounds of species as diverse as honey bees, peacocks, and elephants. Geographer Karen Bakker discusses the surprising and complex ways that animals and plants use sound to communicate…

Karen Bakker is a geographer who studies digital innovation and environmental governance. Her latest book, The Sounds of Life, trawls through more than a thousand scientific papers and Indigenous knowledge to explore our emerging understanding of the planet’s soundscape.

Microphones are now so cheap, tiny, portable, and wirelessly connected that they can be installed on animals as small as bees, and in areas as remote as underneath Arctic ice. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence software can now help decode the patterns and meaning of the recorded sounds. These technologies have opened the door to decoding non-human communication — in both animals and plants — and understanding the damage that humanity’s noise pollution can wreak.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Bakker, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of British Columbia, describes how researchers are constructing dictionaries of animal communication, focusing on elephants, honey bees, whales, and bats. “I think it’s quite likely,” she says, “that within 10 years, we will have the ability to do interactive conversations with these four species.”…

Interspecies understanding: “How Digital Technology Is Helping Decode the Sounds of Nature,” from @YaleE360.

* “Talk to the Animals,” by Leslie Bricusse (famously recorded by Rex Harrison and Sammy Davis, Jr.)


As we translate, we might posit that most of the people alive at 11:11 11/11/1111 had no idea anything was interesting about that moment.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 11, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”*…

Mosaic of a boar hunt from the Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, fourth century. Photograph by Laur Phil. Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the early medieval West, from North Africa to the British Isles, pigs were a crucial part of both agriculture and culture…

Pigs were the consummate meat of the early Middle Ages. Horses and oxen have pulling power, cows and goats and sheep make milk and manure (and skin for parchment and packaging), sheep grow wool, and poultry lay eggs. But domesticated pigs were only destined to be butchered. It took them less than two years to reach their maximum weight, so efficient were they in converting whatever they found or were fed into meat. The osteoarchaeological record shows that farmers slaughtered almost all their pigs before they reached their third birthday, and many of them much earlier, with the exception of breeding sows and stud boars.

But pork was not the meat that everyone ate most. That distinction generally went either to beef or to mutton. Some people did not keep pigs at all: Greenlanders, for instance, and Jews and Muslims, as far as we can tell. There were also some Christians who did not own pigs—or at least, there were Christians who drew up wills that listed their livestock but did not mention any pigs. But because pigs were only ever raised for their flesh, they were a kind of metonym for meat more generally. Pork inspired rhapsodies, and even miracles; in Saint Brigit’s Ireland, tree bark was turned not into fishes and loaves but bacon in order to feed a crowd. And when the scholar al-Jāḥiẓ wrote a massive collection about animals at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, he had plenty of faults to find with pigs, both as a Muslim and as a naturalist. But he had also heard so many paeans to pork that he was fascinated by what it might taste like…

On the singular beasts of the Middle Ages: “Ubiquitous Medieval Pigs,” adapted by Jamie Kreiner from her new Yale University Press book Legions of Pigs in the Early Medieval West, in @laphamsquart.

* George Bernard Shaw


As we ponder the porcine, we might recall that today is National Canadian Bacon Day.


“Now I wanna remind everyone of the House of Mouse Rules: No smoking. No villainous schemes. And no guests eating other guests.”*…

Alligator and python

In addition to being home to men with questionable decision-making skills, Florida also seems to have some issues with bizarre animal behavior, whether it’s freezing iguanas dropping from trees or alligators battling pythons in the Everglades. When it comes to those animals, however, Floridians can truly put the blame on non-natives. Neither pythons nor green iguanas made the Sunshine State their home until we brought them there as pets.

In fact, there are lots of problematic invasive species that have spread through the pet trade, from predatory fish that can drag themselves between bodies of water to a crayfish that clones itself to reproduce. Those high-profile cases lead to some obvious questions, like whether pets really are more likely to be invasive and, if so, why?

Two Swiss researchers, Jérôme Gippeta and Cleo Bertelsmeier have now attempted to answer these questions. And their conclusion is that yes, our pets are more likely to be problems.

To answer the question of whether pets really are problematic, the researchers generated some basic statistics for different groups of animals (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish). These included estimates of the total number of species, as well as the number of those that are classified as invasive and the number that are part of the pet trade.

If pets were no more or less likely to be invasive, you’d expect to see the invasive ones occupy similar fractions of both the pet trade and the total number of species in that group. But that’s not what we see in any of the groups. Invasive mammal species were present at five times the rate in the pet trade as they are in the wild around the globe. There was a similar result in birds; for amphibians, invasive species were eight times more common in the pet trade and about 10 times more common in fish.

Overall, invasive species were 7.4 times more likely to be kept as pets than you’d expect based on their frequency among vertebrate populations.

But cause and effect can be difficult to disentangle. Do we choose species that are more likely to be invasive as pets? Or have pets ended up with more opportunities to invade new environments because we transport them around the world?…

Spoiler alert: it’s the former… A new study finds the factors making them easier to keep also help them spread: “Unfortunately, we like pets that are likely to be invasive species.”

* Mickey Mouse


As we ponder proliferation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that a different kind of “invader,” the Beatles, set a record: they became the first artists to hold all top 5 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 on the same week, on April 4, 1964. 
#1. Can’t Buy Me Love
#2. Twist and Shout
#3. She Loves You
#4. I Want to Hold Your Hand
#5. Please Please Me
More Beatles on the Charts that week: #31 – I Saw Her Standing There, #41 – From Me To You, #46 – Do You Want To Know a Secret, #58 – All My Loving, #65 – You Can’t Do That, #68 – Roll Over Beethoven, #79 – Thank You Girl

At the time, the best-selling piece of Beatles merchandise was the “I Love Ringo” button.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 4, 2021 at 1:01 am

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