Crows and Coins

Or: Extrapolations from Josh Klein’s Vending Machine

When I first read about Josh Klein’s “Crow Vending Machine” I laughed. It seemed funny as hell somehow. After heading over to Klein’s site to read some more about his invention and intentions I stopped laughing. For one thing it’s supervillian clever. Successfully training crows to scour the earth for cash with nothing more than the promise of a peanutty reward is ingenious. More than that though I stopped laughing because I began thinking about the crows themselves and couldn’t help but extrapolate…

First let me get you up to speed on what exactly Klein’s invention is all about in case you missed the story-

NPR’s site explains it as follows:

Quote: “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.”

Because the crows “make the connection” the vending machine idea works, as might more complex ones some day.

Crows have demonstrated their intelligence time and again. They have a penchant for trickery (a.k.a. tactical deception), seem to create their own “dialects” as a means of differentiating family groups, and have exhibited the ability to solve a problem spontaneously by crafting a tool, a feat not even our cousins the chimps have managed. All of this seems to points to sophisticated cognition skills, a trait which itself suggests crows share some abstract thinking skills with us humans.

So… the point is crows are smart.

Which got me thinking.

If we start stimulating their abstract thinking, with that most stimulating of abstractions– cash, what associated experiences might we be opening them up to? I mean, what else might our cognitive brethren learn, that we ourselves have learned, by being placed on this fast track of abstract thought? What epiphanies and what unpleasant shocks lay between them and their eventual empire of the birds?

These are questions responsibly-all-powerful and world-shaping beings must consider. For instance…

Will they learn the gut-twist and discomfort of the “awkward encounter” as multiple crows arrive simultaneously at the vending machine? Will they stare at their claws after a polite, but not overly welcoming, caw? Will they learn to feign interest in some banal object in the safe haven of the middle-distance? Will they pretend the machine is out of the particular peanuts they like and walk away, preferring to sneak back later when that super-annoying crow from accounting is gone?

Will the crows learn the infuriation of trekking all the way from their nest, with exact change, only to have their quarter clank through the innards of the machine and spat out again, and again, and again, until they, feathers beginning to rustle, inspect the coin and find it’s… Canadian!? Will they caw a beak-clenched epithet at Canada? Or at the deli clerk who passed the thing off? Will they throw the coin in disgust before flying away or, irrationally, and with no good reason whatsoever, keep it?

And what if after a few generations of commerce their abstract thinking improves to the degree that they notice the variances in iconography which help to differentiate one coin from another? And what if their jump-started cognition actually produces some sparks of recognition?

What if, in the lazy hours of the afternoon while distractedly fondling a smooth coin with their wings, they begin to look more closely?

I would assume that the fierce eagle, so beloved as symbol in these United States of America, might have somewhat different associations for the moneyed crows about town.

And the feathers in some American Indian’s headdress? Surely a celebration of the proud splendor and noble traditions of indigenous cultures would not be the very first thought to pop into their minds?

As for our mythologies, our winged women and our Mercury’s and Pegasi and Griffons and Sphinx’s… well, I can’t even begin to imagine the crows’ consternation at the thought of these, most likely hungry, abominations.

Lastly, I wonder what, a hundred successfully-vended and belly-filled years from now, when the crows have learned well and their dependance on the coin has increased… when the first few murders of young have already been born with enhanced coin-detecting vision that sees straight through pants pockets and purse leather… when a crude “pawnshop dialect” has been invented approximating human-sounding phrases like “oh hell naw!” and “c’mon mister, that’s a family heirloom!”... I wonder what those unfortunate crows not fortunate enough to be hatched with a silver dollar in their beak might be reduced to?

Not so funny is it?

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating invention, so kudos to Mr. Klein… my low-browed, yuk-yuk, ah-cha-cha-cha! sullying of it notwithstanding. You can read more about the vending machine, Klein’s ultimate aims, and see a short video as well, at the official site.

Hope you enjoyed.

03.08. filed under: ideas. observations. play. 8