Polly wants an iPad: How critters use computers

Think our ability to play video games makes our species special? Think again.

"Man the toolmaker" is an epithet from an earlier generation of anthropologists who studied early humanity -- never mind that there are plenty of instances of animals using tools as well. Computers are merely the latest in a series of tools designed by humanity, and while animals obviously don't build computers, they interact with the ones we give them, in surprising and sometimes delightful ways.

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What the dog saw

Humans interact with computers through very specific I/O devices -- keyboards, mouses, and, all-importantly, monitors, originally CRT screens and now omnipresent flatscreen LCDs and LEDs. One big question is whether animals can even perceive screen-based output at all, given the absence of sensory data like smell that we know is so important to them. It turns out one of the biggest barriers for some animals in watching video is frame refresh rate -- dogs, for instance, have vision so keen that they usually saw CRT video as a series of rapidly changing still images. But modern-day computers and TVs have refresh rates fast enough to fool them, and videos like this one, specifically tailored for dogs, now exist.

Removing the human element

Dogs' ability to process information delivered by computers has important implications for animal cognition research. The "Clever Hans effect", in which animals given a task take unconscious cues from their human handlers, can be minimized if the animal interacts with an unfeeling computer that won't give them any such hints. In one study, Austrian researchers showed that dogs could differentiate images of dogs from pictures of ordinary landscapes; the dogs interacted entirely with touch-screens for the study, and the researchers declared that "using touch-screen computers with dogs opens up a whole world of possibilities on how to test the cognitive abilities of dogs by basically completely controlling any influence from the owner or experimenter."

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Dogs vs. cancer

Animal loyalty to their human handlers can mean that they'll be interacting with computers without even knowing it. It's known that dogs' keen sense of smell allows them to detect early cancer in cells in ways that even specialized equipment can't. The Animal-Computer Interaction Lab at the UK's Open University is testing equipment that allows dogs to indicate on a touchscreen when they've sniffed out the fatal disease. While they're just going through a trained series of motions (and hopefully getting lots of rewards and love for it!), they're definitely using a computer to do useful work.

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Luddites of the sea

Perhaps not all computer-animal research is ultimately useful, though. A wave of interest swept the Internet a few years ago when researcher Jack Kassewitz introduced Merlin, a dolphin in Mexico that was a part of an experiment on dolphin communication, to an iPad, with the hopes that it would be able to identify objects on-screen. A few months later, Merlin had moved on technologically and appeared in this video touting the Panasonic Toughbook, though we never see the dolphin actually interacting with the (presumably corporate-donated) product. Lately, Kassewitz has moved onto other, non-computer-based fields of research.

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It's good to keep busy

Other animals seem more keen on using computers, though. Scientists use these tools for research, but much of that research aims to help the animals' well-being: animals with higher cognitive functions often get bored and depressed in captivity when they aren't challenged. Interacting with computers can help keep their brains limber. Ayumu, a chimpanzee raised in Japan, loves going into his lab's testing room, enjoying the memory games he plays on screen there for social reinforcement and just for fun. "The key is for scientists to develop challenges which are relevant, motivating, and ultimately solvable if they are going to be used as enrichment," says one researcher.

Triumph of the apes

The way Ayumu and his fellow Japanese chimps play the games in some ways show how they're different from us. For instance, two chimps playing the so-called Inspection Game, invented by A Beautiful Mind's John Nash, reach an equilibrium point more quickly than two humans would, which implies that chimps have better short-term working memory than we do. Chimps playing some of the games do, however, seem to identify the graphical elements that they control as "themselves," which has implications for animals' sense of self.

I just called to say EEE EEE EEE

Computers can also help to connect animals to each other, just as they can for humans. Apps for Apes is a program from Orangutan Outreach that introduces orangutans to tablet use. Apparently the gadgets are more heavily used by younger apes than their elders, which is more proof that these creatures are a lot like us.

One app the apes love is Skype, which can allow the highly intelligent primates to interact with favorite trainers, previous ape companions who are now in other zoos, or even future roommates.

The Kinect has nothing on this game controller

Primates aren't the only animals that need mental stimulation: parrots, who are extremely intelligent, enjoy mentally stimulating games. Binghamton University researchers found that their parrots loved playing games on phones and tablets, but tended to destroy equipment with their beaks, so they developed alternatives that were driven entirely by squawking. And you can play them too if you turn your computer's microphone on! A lot of people I follow on Twitter seem obsessed with the new Kim Kardashian game this week, but I spent way too much time today chirping at the addictive Fly Invaders (thank goodness I work at home).

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Happy elephant = happy day (and phone sales?)

In the end, it may be love of play that most unites humans and animals. Take this video, for instance. Yes, it's blatantly an ad for Samsung, using the massive bulk of an elephant to convince you that Samsung's big phones are better than Apple's slim model. But the elephant, as near as I can tell, seems to be genuinely having a blast playing with the phone (it probably helps that it's not in a small enclosure) and if that doesn't make you happy, then your heart is harder than mine, I'm afraid.