Evolving Collective Intelligence by Tom Atlee

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

Exploring how to generate the collective wisdom we need

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June 13, 2005

What does it mean to share ideas with a bird?

I just returned from Australia. It will take a few days for my experiences there to ripen into something I can write for you. In the meantime, I want to share an intriguing example of human-animal communication and intelligence that came my way.

Among the hundreds of emails awaiting me on my return was one from the Lifebridge Foundation. They support innovative activities ranging from the Co-Intelligence Institute (with whom I work) to artist Aimee Morgana and her remarkable parrot N'Kisi, whose work they shared in the article below. Intrigued, I Googled N'Kisi. I didn't find the article referred to, but I found a comparable one about N'Kisi's conversational capacities, as well as one about a double-blind experiment demonstrating his psychic abilities (as well as a third article providing the full experimental data and much more about Ms Morgana's partnership approach to teaching her precocious bird).

Among the aspects of this that intrigue me are:

  • I wonder how much of N'Kisi's apparent genius is due to his own exceptional intelligence, and how much is due to the respectful teaching approach used by Ms Morgana
  • Parrots are already known to be among the most intelligent animals, and they are highly social. There is an interesting correlation in the animal world between complex social relationships and individual intelligence, which suggests once again a collective dimension even to individual intelligence.
  • The fact that N'Kisi is only about 5 years old, and that he could live to be 60 or more - and that he can creatively use about a thousand words - makes one wonder what he will be saying decades from now, and how he might teach parrots about us and us about his brethren. Is that too far-fetched?
  • Psychic abilities seem to suggest a level of cognitive interconnectedness among living beings. Some, like quantum physicist David Bohm, suggest that individual consciousness may be more accurately described as our window on collective consciousness, or our particular manifestation of it. We are not as isolated as we think. Although many forms of collective intelligence do not rely in any way on theories of collective consciousness, "noetic" (consciousness-based) theories are definitely part of the picture.

The email from Lifebridge notes N'Kisi is being featured in the Jane Goodall special "When Animals Talk" tonight, June 12 at 8pm EST on Animal Planet.

- - - -

N'Kisi the parrot knows what he's talking about
By Lewis Smith
The London Times, January 27, 2004

SQUAWKING "pretty polly" just isn't enough for some parrots. N'Kisi, apparently, is able to hold a whole conversation.

The African grey, living in New York, is said to have a vocabulary of almost 1,000 words - the same as a three-year-old child - and has mastered basic grammar and sentence construction, according to a report in BBC Wildlife Magazine.

His owner, Aimee Morgana, says
he is able to ask for food and attention but is far happier keeping up a running commentary on what is going on around him and talking to anyone who comes close.

African greys, like macaws, are well known for being able to mimic human speech and respond to cues. N'Kisi, however, appears to be the first to develop this ability into creating his own language. Ms. Morgana, who has taken part in experiments to show that her bird is able to read her mind, has recorded him making up sentences 15 words long. She says the bird takes into account past, present and future tenses.

Professor Donald Broom of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, an expert on cognitive powers of animals, said that the parrot's conversational abilities should not cause too much surprise.

"The more we look at the cognitive abilities of animals, the more advanced they appear. The biggest leap of all has been with parrots," he said. "They have an ability to form concepts at high level. You would have to look at bonobos [a species of ape] and chimpanzees to find something comparable."

Les Rance, of the Parrot Society UK, said: "This bird seems to be quite exceptional. African greys are intelligent birds and can be taught to carry out complex jigsaws where the pieces fit into shaped holes. They can also respond to circumstances such as saying 'good night' when you turn the lights off at night or 'goodbye' when you put a coat on. But I've never come across one like this."

Ms. Morgana, an artist with an interest in animal behaviour, said N'Kisi's vocabulary was up to 972 words, having learnt "yoghurt" yesterday. She is more impressed by the comments she says the parrot comes out with. Once, she said,
when she was picking up the beads of a necklace, N'Kisi commented: "Oh no, you broke your new necklace."

The bird is also, apparently, able to recognize different objects, shapes and colours. Ms. Morgana says that N'Kisi, aged six, has recorded 10,000 different sentences. He was hand-reared by Ms. Morgana who wanted to show that it is possible for the language barrier between humans and animals to be broken.

Ignoring the usual method of training by a system of rewards, she decided to talk to the parrot as if he were a human child. "I had no idea what would happen. I was just interested in animal communication," she said.

N'Kisi picks things up from hearing them in conversation just as a child would from explaining and repeating things. He quickly exceeded my wildest dream. He shares his thought."

Some linguistic conventions appear to prove difficult for the parrot. While trying to put "fly" into the past tense it said "flied" instead of "flew".
When it met Jane Goodall, the primatologist, after seeing a picture of her with a chimpanzee the parrot apparently said: "Got a chimp?" Seeing another parrot hanging upside down, N'Kisi is said to have called out: "You got to put this bird on the camera."


posted by Tom Atlee on Monday June 13 2005
updated on Saturday September 24 2005

URL of this article:




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