Josh Klein became a TED talk sensation a number of years ago when he created a vending machine that taught crows how to exchange lost coins for peanuts. Now Josh has a new project based on his vending machine — an "experimentation platform designed to autonomously train corvids (the family of birds crows belong to)." I asked him to write a bit about it. Here it is:
Ten years ago I walked out on the TED main stage in one of my very first public appearances and poured my heart out about the craziest, weirdest, most unlikely thing I'd ever attempted: building a vending machine for crows.
The response was immense, and for several months I was convinced that we were on the verge of transforming how the entire human race interacted with animals. We built an open source version of the box so anyone could make one, assembled dozens of kits so people could buy them and do their own tests, and I ran around in a media-fueled frenzy trying to get people to understand that crows really could change the world.
Then bad things happened. The community of fans stopped trying to assemble the design as they found it too hard to work with. Those who bought kits generally didn't finish building them. A big news outlet misreported my results and then redacted the piece by basically calling me a liar. Worst of all, I got so hurt that I stopped trying.
For a while. For whatever reason my inner ten year old wouldn't stop insisting that despite sinking a decade into obsessing over corvids (the family crows belong to) and other synanthropes (animals which live close to humans), I needed to do more. That my delicate ego didn't really mean much when humanity was increasingly ready to turn the corner on how they think about and live with other species.
In short, the work still matters. Enough that I spent another ten years working with a partner, Steve (a genius at hardware/software design), to develop and test over a dozen new prototypes of the CrowBox. While we were at it, folks like Steve Joy and Christophe Vieren built their own machines and shot videos of wild corvids using them, and most recently a team from University of Cambridge ran a series of experiments proving New Caledonian crows can use a vending machine they created.
All of which helped push us to finally release an updated version of the CrowBox: an appliance designed to facilitate experiments in training corvids. This design is cheaper, tougher, and easier to assemble – and is completely open source, of course. We've tested it with a few different groups of crows and jays with positive results, and have developed complete documentation, assembly videos, and community software support to help folks get up and running quickly. Now we're looking to build a community of like-minded folks to expand the design, test and improve the training protocol, and see how much we can learn about autonomously training corvids.
Download the design, build a box of your own, and jump in by testing it with your local birds. Nobody's likely to get rich off this and there are no guarantees of success, but with a little luck we'll be able to move the needle on how people think about their relationships with animals and learn a ton in the process.