The excellent Smartdogs’ blog has cited an interesting — if ill-advised — new way the government is wasting our money: building robots to train animals without human involvement.
Mind you, I do differ with Janeen in one important way: I’m not so sure you can’t, given the amazing robotics advances on their way in the next 10 to 20 years, build a robot that can train a dog. Given that the Japanese are starting to build robots with facial expressions, and even pheromone signals are beginning to make sense, I’m not so sure that this task is beyond near-future technology.
Now, I agree with Janeen in that the project is hopelessly naïve: at best it will take much, much longer than its creators realize (partly if they waste time with an all-operant box rather than starting by building a robot that looks and smells like a human trainer) . But one important thing that a robo-trainer can have is perfect timing. Never a cue too late, never one too early. Never tired. Never distracted, pissed off, sinus-infected ...
As th’ better half is fond of pointing out, accurate communication with the animal is a fundamental — and good timing of such can produce results in the face of muddy-headed methods, unsavory personality, and much else that’s wrong, wrong, wrong.
I think it could work.
I’m already a bit off-message: my point today has to do with building a machine that looks and smells like a person, at least to a dog. Before you say “could never happen,” recall the cuckoo.
This is the bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, getting free child-rearing in the process (often, the cuckoo chick will kick the lawful denizens of the nest out, so the mama bird is actually losing her babies as she raises the changeling). But it’s all the more amazing in that the cuckoo chick doesn’t look anything like the chicks of the birds it parasitizes: it’s bigger, uglier, just a different, um, bird entirely.
How in the hell can mama bird not tell the difference? Could it be that easy to fool dogs as well? Granted, most dogs are smarter than most birds (though consider the amazing intelligence of the corvids and the psittacines, and don’t be too sure of yourself), but this seems to be well within the ability of a bird to sort out.
Except if they tried, it would be a disaster.
Today’s entry, courtesy Diazaburo Shizuka and Bruce Lyon at UC Santa Cruz, explains why. Not content with basking in the permanent sun we’re told they enjoy out that way, these folks took a look at coots — no, not volunteer dog handler/firefighters pushing 50, but the water birds. Coots are a special case because they sometimes parasitize the nests of their own species.
What the California Dreamers discovered is that mama coot actually does a fair job of kicking changelings out of her nest, even though they look a lot like her own. How? She uses the first-hatched chick as a template, and boots chicks that don’t look enough like it to the curb.
Why does this work? Because, of course, you don’t parasitize an empty nest — you sneak an egg into one that’s already got eggs in it. You therefore start out with a younger egg than the rightful owner’s. And because of that, the first-hatched is likely to be a chick who belongs there, and not an interloper.
Why can’t it work for the birds that cuckoos parasitize? Because cuckoos grow fast and big, the better to muscle out the competition. There’s a good chance that the first egg hatched in a cuckoo-parasitized nest will be a changeling — and if mama uses it as a pattern of whom to keep, fewer, not more, of her babies will survive.
Bird-brained indeed. Maybe I was hasty in rejecting Data’s cat; getting a dog to accept a robot trainer may have less to do with how convincing it is than with picking the right cues, and understanding how dogs think.
 Another thing: as I’m fond of telling people, technology is likely to put us dog handlers out of business, but not by creating a robotic searcher. Why? Because by the time they could develop one, it’ll be too easy to find people in other ways, such as reading the location of their GPS-equipped cell phone. (Though this, too, isn’t quite as easy as you’d think.)