Parrots Taught to Video Call Other Parrots Formed Lasting Friendships, Researchers Say

Researchers from Northeastern University, the University of Glasgow, and MIT designed a video calling system for parrots to “chat” with other parrots. Over time, the birds developed a preference for certain parrot “friends,” forming strong bonds and repeatedly calling the same birds.

The United States is home to 20 million pet birds, and scientists are trying to find a way to help them connect from afar. The 15 volunteers who completed the experiment were recruited from Parrot Kindergarten—a training platform that helps owners deepen their relationship with their birds and “better meet their needs for mental enrichment and challenge.”

Parrots are highly sociable creatures and flock together in their natural habitats. However, these birds are typically kept as solo pets in households or other forms of captivity. Due to their high intelligence, parrots can become distressed and even pluck their feathers if they are not provided with adequate attention and mental stimulation.

Parrot owners spent the first two weeks of the study training their birds to ring a bell and touch the image of another parrot—displayed on a tablet screen—to initiate a video call. There were a total of 212 video calls placed by parrots. The owners then turned off the calls after five minutes or if their parrots lost interest.

Phase two of the experiment involved an “open call” period during which the participating parrots could call any other parrot in the study at any time. In total, the parrots made 147 calls to other birds, providing over 1,000 hours of footage for researchers to analyze.

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The study’s authors, Rébecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern; Jennifer Cunha, a parrot behaviorist and Northeastern researcher; and Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, an assistant professor at the University of Glasgow, reported that the parrots usually stayed on their calls for the maximum time allowed. The birds also appeared to understand that there was a real “fellow bird” on the other side of the screen.

Some parrots even taught their companions new skills, such as flying, foraging and making different vocalizations. “She came alive during the calls,” one pet parent said about their bird.

Hirskyj-Douglas told the Guardian, “I was quite surprised at the range of different behaviors.”

“Some would sing, some would play around and go upside down, others would want to show another bird their toys.”

They also formed clear preferences. For instance, Cunha’s Goffin’s cockatoo named Ellie became friends with an African Grey parrot named Cookie. “It’s been over a year, and they still talk,” Cunha told Northeastern Global News. They seemed to be making vocalizations that mirror “Hello, I’m here” in parrot-speak.

Ultimately, the birds formed lasting bonds, measured by how frequently a bird chose to call the same bird. The most socially active parrots, who initiated the most calls, also received the most calls, pointing to a “reciprocal dynamic similar to human socialization.”

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Some parrots were even reported to have developed attachments to the human caretakers of their virtual friends.

While it is true that captive parrots will not get the same social stimulation they would in the wild, regular video chats with other birds can help enrich their lives.

Despite the promising results, the authors caution parrot owners against launching impromptu Facetime chats on their birds’ behalf. In the study, experts monitored the parrots they were working with, ending calls at the first sign of stress, aggression, disinterest, or discomfort.

The authors noted that “unmediated interactions could lead to fear [or] even violence and property damage.”

“We were really careful about training the birds’ caregivers thoroughly to ensure that they could offer an appropriate level of support to empower their parrots but also help them avoid any negative experiences. As soon as the birds showed any signs of distraction or discomfort, the calls were stopped.”

Kleinberger noted how parrots were only recently domesticated for a generation or two, unlike dogs, cats, and horses. “We’re not saying you can make them as happy as they would be in the wild,” she says. “We’re trying to serve those who are already [in captivity].”

Speaking about Cookie and Ellie, Hirskyj-Douglas says she found their connection particularly moving.

“It really speaks to how cognitively complex these birds are and how much ability they have to express themselves. It was really beautiful, those two birds, for me.”


New Battery-Free, Wireless Underwater Camera From MIT Engineers Could Help Scientists Further Explore The Ocean 

According to MIT News, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have potentially advanced the way that scientists can explore unknown regions of the ocean, track pollution, and/or monitor climate change. 

Scientists currently estimate that more than 95% of the oceans on Earth have never been explored. One of the biggest obstacles researchers face is the high cost of powering an underwater camera that can withstand the environmental changes that come from the extreme depths of the ocean. 

Typically, researchers need to have the underwater cameras that currently are in use to observe the ocean tethered to a vessel or need to send a ship out to recharge the batteries of the camera. 

Now, MIT researchers have developed a battery-free wireless underwater camera that is “100,000 times more energy efficient than other undersea cameras.” 

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The device is said to take color photos, even in dark underwater environments, and can transmit the data from the images wirelessly through the water.

The camera itself is powered by sound, and works by converting mechanical energy from sound waves traveling through the water into electrical energy that can then be used to power its imaging and communication systems. Once the camera captures an image, it uses the sound waves to transfer data to a receiver on land that will reconstruct this image taken.

The scientists behind the camera also think the device is so impressive because it doesn’t need a power source, meaning it can be underwater capturing images for weeks before it needs to be retrieved. This will allow researchers to explore new depths for longer periods of time. 

“One of the most exciting applications of this camera for me personally is in the context of climate monitoring. We are building climate models, but we are missing data from over 95 percent of the ocean. This technology could help us build more accurate climate models and better understand how climate change impacts the underwater world,” explained Fadel Adib,  senior author of a report on the device published in Nature Communications. 

Sayed Saad Afzal, Waleed Akbar, and Osvy Rodriguez are co-lead authors on the study as well, as well as Unsoo Ha, Mario Doumet, and Reza Ghaffarivardavagh. 

Adib explained how initially, the group was “trying to minimize the hardware as much as possible, to create new constraints on how to build the system, send information, and perform image reconstruction. It took a fair amount of creativity to figure out how to do that.” 

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The camera uses red, green, and blue LED lights to reflect on the white parts of the image, which can then “reconstruct the color image taken,” according to Akbar. 

“When we were kids in art class, we were taught that we could make all colors using three basic colors. The same rules follow for color images we see on our computers. We just need red, green, and blue — these three channels — to construct color images,” he explained. 

According to the report, the researchers tested the camera in several different underwater environments. Through those trials they were able to take high-quality photos of fish and plants in dark environments that are typically very difficult to capture. 

Now that they have a working prototype, the next step will be for the researchers to enhance the device to be used in more real-world settings. Overall, they want to increase the camera’s memory, extend its range, and ability to stream images and potentially videos in real time. 

“This will open up great opportunities for research both in low-power IoT devices as well as underwater monitoring and research,” says Haitham Al-Hassanieh, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Woman Coughing with Mask On

New AI Technology Can Detect Covid-19 From The Sound Of Your Cough 

One of the biggest concerns that’s been raised surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic regards asymptomatic individuals who unknowingly spread the virus. Now, thanks to newly developed AI technology, healthcare officials may be able to detect asymptomatic cases simply by the sounds of their coughs. 

The technology came from a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who claim that the model can detect asymptomatic cases by listening to subtle differences between a healthy cough and a Covid-19 cough. As of right now the AI technology is still in its clinical trial period, however, the group has already started the process of seeking approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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The algorithm is based on previous AI models that were able to detect lung conditions such as pneumonia and asthma, and it’s even been used in some screenings for Alzheimer’s disease, as that can cause some major strain or degradation on the vocal cords and respiratory system of certain patients. In fact, the specific Alzheimer’s model is the main one that was used to develop the Covid-19 detecting technology. 

One of the studies co-authors, Brian Subirana, who’s also a research scientist in MIT’s Auto-ID Laboratory recently explained in a statement how this technology is able to analyze our vocal cords to make such concrete conclusions. 

Things we easily derive from fluent speech, AI can pick up simply from coughs, including things like the person’s gender, mother tongue or even emotional state. There’s in fact sentiment embedded in how you cough.”

The process began with the group creating a website where volunteers were able to record their coughs using their cell phones or computers. Volunteers were both healthy and infected with Covid-19 so the technology could really hear every little difference. Participants would then fill out survey questionnaires regarding their diagnosis and any symptoms they may be experiencing. 

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People were also asked to record forced coughs, like the one you let out when your doctor tells you to cough so they can listen to your lungs. Researchers have so far gathered over 70,000 individual recordings of forced coughs. Of those recordings 2,660 were from patients with Covid-19, with or without symptoms. After they compiled the recordings they used 4,256 of the samples to train their AI models and 1,064 of the samples to test the model to see whether or not it could detect the difference in a regular cough and a Covid-19 cough. 

They then found that the AI model could tell the differences based on four determining factors: muscular degradation, vocal cord strength, respiratory function and lung performance. So far, the model has been able to correctly identify 98.5% of people with Covid-19 and correctly rule out Covid-19 in 94.2% of people who were healthy and participated in the study. 

In order for this technology to be approved and distributed throughout the nation as a valid form of testing, further research needs to be done. This would mean expanding the sample size of volunteers to include coughs from people of all ages and ethnicities. If the software does prove effective, this technology will likely take the form of a downloadable app on smart devices that would make testing very useful for the remainder of this pandemic. 

The team of researchers are seeking regulatory approval for the app which may come as early as next month, but for now researchers are continuing to perfect the technology so it can be used to its fullest potential and really help curve the spread of Covid-19.

Pile of Books

Parag Pathak, An Economist, Is Making Public Education Less Biased

“Better-off families had learned the system’s inner workings, such as which schools would consider only students who ranked that school first and which good schools were a safe bet. Families who didn’t understand the system simply listed schools in order of preference.”