Parrots can identify shapes, even elusive ones

"If this animal with a relatively primitive brain can perform this task, there may be something here that needs to be explored," psychologist Ken Nakayama said.

By Brooks Hays

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 20 (UPI) -- New research proves parrots know their shapes, even those hiding in optical illusions.

Kanizsa's Triangle is a famous illusory contours, a visual illusion whereby the impression of a triangle is intimated by several inward-facing Pac-Man-like figures.


The triangle is one of several geometric mirages recognized by a parrot named Griffin. Researchers at Harvard found Griffin was able to identify a variety of occluded shapes, as well as Kanizsa figures with up to six sides.

Researchers trained Griffin to recognize a variety of shapes on plain pieces of paper. They varied in color and size, but the training aids did not visually recall the Kanizsa figures.

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"There is no commonality image-wise between the real 3-D triangle and the Kanizsa triangle," psychologist Ken Nakayama told the Harvard Gazette. "Yet Griffin has made that connection."

It's a connection that many deep-learning computer algorithms fail to make, and researchers believe Griffin may be able to help scientists understand why.

"These algorithms can do astonishing things, but they're very brittle in the sense that they can make terrible mistakes that you and I would never make," Nakayama said. "If this animal with a relatively primitive brain can perform this task, there may be something here that needs to be explored."


Quality over quantity may be the key to Griffin's ability to do more with less. But replicating that quality isn't easy. Currently, most computer learning algorithms rely on quantity. The challenge is to instill deep-learning systems with both quality and quantity.

"Researchers say if they give them enough information in enough situations, they will learn this," Nakayama said. "But they just haven't made an attempt to do what this parrot has done under similar circumstances, and I would love them to try this."

Griffin's shape-recognition abilities were detailed in a new paper, published this week in the journal Cognition.

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