The Crow Vending Machine


Joshua Klein is a man of genius. His idea? Training crows to put coins they find in the street into a vending machine he's created and get peanuts as a reward.

NPR explains it thus: "Klein says this all started when he used a modified version of Skinnerian training to teach his cat to use the toilet, and it worked really well. That made him think that he might be able to use the method with crows. The first inklings that he would work with crows came about 10 years ago, at a cocktail party, when he argued that harnessing the birds to do something useful would be a much better plan for his native Seattle, plagued by crows, than mass slaughter.

In the first two steps of his four-step experiment, Klein says he provides crows with coins, peanuts and the vending machine, in order to get them used to the materials. Then he provides the birds only with coins, and in frustration they bang around until the coin gets in the machine’s slot. That introduces the next step, when the machine dispenses a peanut as a reward for each coin. In the fourth step, he gives the birds nothing. But the crows see that coins have been spread on the ground near the machine. This reveals what’s special about crows. Squirrels, for example, look at the box a half-dozen times, then disappear to play in traffic. Crows make the connection: Pick up the coin, put it in the box and receive a reward."

Now he is working on a self-teaching mechanism for crows. From his website:

"The goal of this project is to create a device that will autonomously train crows. So far we've trained captive crows to deposit dropped coins they find on the ground in exchange for peanuts. The next step is to see how quickly we can get wild crows to learn the system, and then how quickly they can learn it from each other."

So what is this? A cunning plan to make money without moving a finger? Not at all:

"Once we've got system down for teaching coin collection we'll move to seeing how flexibly they can learn *other* tasks, like collecting garbage, sorting through discarded electronics, or maybe even search and rescue. The crows continue to amaze us with their abilities, so who knows?

In the meantime, the idea of mutually beneficial synanthropy is gaining ground. That's the concept that we can have mutually beneficial relationships with animals adapted to human ecologies. We're doing some consulting with companies that have animal-related problems to find animal-related solutions - instead of just bombing, shooting, or poisoning them."

As I say: genius.

You can visit the Vending machine for crows page, and watch Joshua presenting his project at a TED conference.

Also, see what the nonist has to say about it (where the above picture is from).