TED 2008: Crow vending machine maker Joshua Klein

(I'm liveblogging from TED 2008, in Monterey, CA)

Presenter: Img 0309


Technology hacker Joshua Klein built a vending machine that teaches crows to deposit coins they find into a special vending machine that dispenses peanuts. He has been studying crows for over ten years and has learned that they are very intelligent. Their brain/body weight ratios are similar to chimpanzees. He's showing a video of how a crow learned to use a tool to pull an object out of of a tube. It's impressive.

Crows are smart and adaptable. For example, they drop nuts on streets so cars run over them, then wait for the traffic signal to change so they can pick up the food. Other crows who see this happen quickly learn how to do this for themselves.

His machine uses Skinnerian training. He put coins and peanuts around the machine. The crows eat the peanut on the feeder tray. Then Joshua took away the nuts and left coins in the feeder tray. It pisses off the crows. They sweep the coins around with their beaks, looking for food. When a coin accidentally drops into the slot, it dispenses a peanut. Next, Joshua took away the coins. The crows learned to find coins elsewhere and deposit them.

So now he wants to train crows for search and rescue, picking up trash, and other mutually beneficial tasks.

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  1. the town i live in is overrun, overflown, and over flowin’ with crows.
    personally i like them and the goth vibe they impart, but their poop is a real problem.

    the municipal gov’t spends thousands on a variety of wacky and ultimately unsuccessful methods of crow deterrence.

    maybe we train them to poop elsewhere ! rewards for aiming ?

  2. that headline is such a tease. i was hoping for a vending machine that dispensed crows!

    Or grackles, for the diet conscious.

  3. I find myself wondering where the crows are finding spare change from, and how long before they learn to raid tip jars…

  4. Pat Dodds,

    Having hunted deer and butchered several cows in my lifetime – you’re damned right I’m going to eat meat.

    If you want to subsist solely on weeds like some sort of bipedal ruminant, that is your right – go for it.

    If you come to preach, I suggest you turn around before the rest of us carnivores reclassify you in the foodchain.

    You got a REAL point there, PETA-boi?

  5. My car and I were once a buzzard vending machine.

    I was driving down a back road, when I saw a buzzard dive from high overhead into the tall grass at the side of the road a few yards ahead of my car. A squirrel streaked out from the grass and ran at top speed into the street, where, with no time to react, I dispatched it under my left front tire. In my rear view mirror, I watched the buzzard hop to the middle of the street and chow down on the handily acquired meal.

    I felt so used

  6. Why so defensive, Santa?

    Yeah, crows are smart and whatever, but this guy working with them? He is teh hotness!

  7. If you want to subsist solely on weeds like some sort of bipedal ruminant

    You don’t strike me as the type who ruminates much.

  8. My first morning in India, I woke up, looked out the window and saw a Corvus splendens with a strip of flesh in its mouth. Since it was Mumbai, I dread to imagine what, or whom, it came from.

  9. We have lots of crows here in Iowa for some reason. I like them.

    BTW, I didn’t claw my way to the top of the food chain just to eat vegetables!

  10. Crows up here in the mountains seem enormous to me. I really liked this post it was interesting. I would love to see a Crow vending machine that exchanged peanuts for litter.

  11. Crows up here in the mountains seem enormous to me.

    Maybe they’re ravens? Or you have lots of tasty rodents around.

  12. that is one hell of a good idea! I mean really!
    I bet crows could be trained to pick up and deposit cigarette butts for a food reward in one day!

    Brotherbear, I salute you!

    The beauty is the crows don’t suffer and the litter goes away.

  13. “Having hunted deer and butchered several cows in my lifetime – you’re damned right I’m going to eat meat.”

    Wow, Santa, I’m impressed by your meaningless manliness. You like guns too?

  14. I don’t think these activities are beneficial for the crows. Perhaps they’ll be too smart to fall for it.

  15. hey, they get a food reward. How is that different than scrounging garbage? Easier if nothing else.
    Their intelligence is exactly why they will do it. And they’ll be gaming the system within a week.

  16. I think I might try making one of those vending machines myself. Not for any altruistic reasons, mind you, I’m only interested in the cash!

    Of course, the crows would eventually figure out how to hack the vending machine with other flat bits of junk and that would be the end of my coin gathering scheme.

  17. Has anyone documented the way crows are replacing pigeons as the urban bird, around the world?

    Tokyo long ago; Minneapolis-St. Paul, a friend told, me, a decade ago. Various other places.

    Who counts pigeons and crows, anyone?

  18. Someone should train them to pick up fast food containers. That would help our urban landscapes to no end.

    That, and take shopping carts back to the grocery store.

  19. Pat D.,

    Nope, I hate guns. I was an MP in the US Army for 8 years and learned that very few good things come from guns.

    You seem awfully easy to impress.

  20. To the PETA-bois that responded earlier on this board. just remember one thing. IF your girlfriend is vegan, she won’t eat meat. And that will put a bit of a damper on your love life.

  21. I wonder if the crows that have been tearing shingles off my roof are trying to get into a peanut vending machine…

  22. @ Jamshid666: wellthis “PETA-boi” is a total faggot, so I’m not really worried about some girl “eating my meat” anyway.

    It makes me sad when people can only conceptualize animals on a “them’s good eatin'” level.

    Furthermore, I’m not telling you to not eat meat: I’m just saying that I don’t. Why are you and Santa getting your panties all in a wad about it, anyway? Is it because we’re different than you, and therefore must be a threat of some kind? Man, all those beef hormones are making you really aggressive… :)

  23. I’ve lived in NYC for some 40 years and have definitely noticed that crows seem to be the new pigeons.

    They are definitely smart and very social. I have seen them on several occasions in the last few years ganging (mobbing?) up on hawks, which have also become plentiful around here.

    As I think of it, while I suspect the pigeon population is being reduced by crows in NYC, I think the environment is cleaner and improves the food supply for both (though I’m sure some of the crow food supply is pigeons…) But I’m no biologist.

  24. @Chocolatey Shatner: Regarding “@ Jamshid666: wellthis “PETA-boi” is a total faggot, so I’m not really worried about some girl “eating my meat” anyway.”

    Damn, I’m going to have to revise my statement and make that S.O. instead of girlfriend. How non-PC of me.

  25. Drat. I saw the phrase “Crow vending machine” and thought it was going to be a gumball dispenser shaped like Crow T. Robot, to go with my Tom Servo…

  26. What the hell does this topic have to do with omnivore vs. vegetarian ragefest?

    Very interesting idea though. Training crows to be useful parasites for cities? Could be neat.

  27. and after my fustian feathered minions have mastered simple theft of useful objects; eyes!!! AHAHAHAHAH!!

    sorry, I had broccoli

  28. I’m in awe of the crow vending machine and the crows who figured it out. There’s a good article about animal cognition in the March Nat Geo which mentions the frustrations of animal researchers:
    “It’s a common complaint among animal researchers. Whenever they find a mental skill in a species that is reminiscent of a special human ability, the human cognition scientists change the definition. But the animal researchers may underestimate their power—it is their discoveries that compel the human side to shore up the divide.” It also talks about the New Caledonian crows that make “hooks from sticks and leaf stems to poke into the crowns of the palm trees, where fat grubs hide.”
    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/animal-minds/virginia-morell-text

  29. kamikaze pigeons
    “With this support, Skinner’s system was refined. The previous harness was discarded in favor of a more practical lens and screen grid with a special servo-control mechanism. The force of the pigeon’s pecking motion was increased by running a bomb’s gyro and controls in a vacuum and by placing valves behind the top, bottom and sides of the flexible screen. When the pigeon tapped one of these valves, it opened, permitting air pressure to build up in the system and operate the fins on the bomb. When the target image was at dead center and the pigeon pecked at dead center, all the valves opened an equal amount and the setting was unchanged”

  30. Awesome post. I love crows and ravens, they’re really very intelligent. They even like to play – I remember seeing them while I was skiing, throwing themselves onto a snowy slope from the air, tumbling down it, and then flying back up to do it over and over again.

    My uncle also used to tell stories about the ravens at Yellowstone Park, who had figured out how to unhook the straps over the food compartments in snowmobile seats. Guys would return to their snowmobiles and see that their sandwiches had been raided!

  31. Folks who are interested in ravens, what they can do, and how they’re studied, should check out Bernd Heinrich’s Ravens In Winter.

  32. So now he wants to train crows for search and rescue, picking up trash, and other mutually beneficial tasks.

    Could the crows be trained to peck litterers on the head? Or (if not bald), tug on their hair?

  33. Ravens In Winter

    +1

    I suspect if you award crows for picking up trash that they’d start pilfering non-trash. They’d steal mail. But maybe you could award them for delivering mail.

  34. “Their brain/body weight ratios are similar to chimpanzees. ”
    But chimps have opposable thumbs on both their hands and feet. Yet, we’re not fucked. Chimps still need to wear a diaper when roller skating,..heh heh chimps on skates.

    Uh what was the question again?

  35. Antinous, can I be in the GLBT BoingBoing club even though I am a raging hetero? I like you guys better than the procreaters.

  36. “Chris – I saw this piece in the Daily Telegraph this week, it says: “A quick smoke is good for the wings. Birds are picking up discarded cigarette butts and using their smoke to fumigate their wings of parasites, experts have suggested. Rooks have been spotted swooping onto the tracks at Exeter St. David’s railway station in Devon and then placing their wings over the smoke to collect the fumes. One commuter said: I noticed the rooks because they are not usually found in towns. They were generally flapping about when a chap flicked a cigarette butt onto the track. It was still alight, and one of the rooks swooped down, picked the butt up with its beak and they flew around and landed on the platform dancing around with a cigarette butt in its beak. It looked quite comical, but then it dropped the butt onto the platform, placed its wings over it, collecting the smoke. It seemed as though it was using it to get rid of something, like an ant or a parasite or something.” And then they got a quote from someone at the RCPB who said they’ve never heard about it but perhaps they’d learn to use the cigarette smoke to kill off parasites.”

  37. This is a great way to make money. Although crows are smart, they aren’t smart enough to know that a couple peanuts are not worth a quarter.

  38. can I be in the GLBT BoingBoing club even though I am a raging hetero?

    I believe that identity resides in the head and the heart, not the crotch.

  39. So. . . crows will literally “work for peanuts”?

    If this backfires (for example if crows start shredding garbage bags to find trash to trade for peanuts, or stealing money from blind beggars cups), I guess Josh Klein is going to have to , uhhh . . . “eat crow.”

  40. the cigarette thing can also be used enforce no smoking areas, the crows won’t care if it’s a butt on the ground or a lit one in an ashtray. Note: make receptacle fire-proof

  41. In the UK it is the magpie which seems to be the ubiquitous bird in town and country. They seem to aggressively protect their territory and they deliberately trash other bird’s nests and eat their eggs. We have had a pair of collar doves in our garden for some time and the magpies got both the nests they made last year.

    My son thinks that crows being very intelligent will take the easy way to collecting trash and/or coins and start raiding likely places or indeed mugging people for their papers and crisp packets. There are already places where they are a nuisance. It may be necessary to send them for re-education from time to time.

  42. Anybody interested in the intelligence of corvids, their cultural differences from place to place, and more, should really read In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell (http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780300122558-1). It has lots of great information, and is a fun and interesting read.

    It also discusses other animals that pass cultural habits on to their offspring.

  43. @ #32 posted by xrm0

    “1) train crows to bring coins
    2) ????
    3) profit!!!”

    HA! You made me cough noodles I was halfway through swallowing.

    @ #49 posted by rochrobb

    “Could the crows be trained to peck litterers on the head? Or (if not bald), tug on their hair?”

    Could the crows be trained to keep Ginger Kids away from my house? (nah just kiddings, gingers are alright)

    @ #57 posted by ill lich


    So. . . crows will literally “work for peanuts”?

    If this backfires (for example if crows start shredding garbage bags to find trash to trade for peanuts, or stealing money from blind beggars cups), I guess Josh Klein is going to have to , uhhh . . . “eat crow.”

    In 10 years time perhaps all buskers and beggers will just have to carry a scarecrow wherever they’re operating?

  44. Actually, Klein is just a minion of our crow masters.

    Two Gaiman posts and now crows, it’s Sandman’s Day at BoingBoing.

  45. The problem of stealing or shredding bags could be worked out. You could teach the crow that retrieving trash on the ground gets a reward but trash from any kind of container doesn’t. Or coins that are near a human aren’t rewardable. Depends on how much time you want to devote to it. Biggest problem for a city is staffing. You need trainers and someone to service the peanut dispensers. Getting people to pick up trash for community service is (relatively) free.

  46. once crows learn something, they teach it to their young.How much trouble is to empty a cigarette butt can and dump some peanuts in a hopper? You could probably get kids to do it for free.

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