Aug 22, 2008

Tech - The mera image

Aesop obviously knew dogs were not as smart as some people thought. In one of his fables, a dog with a bone in its mouth sees its reflection in a stream and immediately thinks it's another dog with another bone, which it also wants. So it starts to bark and, of course, famously comes to grief. On the other hand, a magpie, which is a bird with a pea-sized brain, would never do something as dumb as that. According to cognitive scientist Helmut Prior and his colleagues at the Institut fur Psychologie in Frankfurt, Germany, when this bird looks into a mirror it doesn't think there's another magpie somewhere in there but recognises the reflection as itself.

The researchers used an ingenious method to discover this mirror self-recognition capability, as it's called. They subjected magpies to a "mark test" where small coloured marks were made on the birds' necks in such a way that they could only be seen in a mirror. Then a mirror was put in front of them. When the magpies started engaging in activity that was directed towards the mark - for example pecking or scratching at it - the researchers were able to conclude that they recognised the image as themselves, and not another magpie.

Very few other animals - and definitely no non-mammals prior to the latest addition - can pull off this simple cosmetic stunt. Among them, predictably, are the great apes such as chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orang-utans, the Asian elephant and bottle-nosed dolphins. Even human beings before the age of 18 to 24 months, which coincides with the first signs of social behaviour, don't have the same level of self-awareness and usually ignore the blob staring back at them.

Scientists believe the ability to distinguish oneself as different from others evolves only in highly social animals where individuality is important. Like human beings and apes, dolphins are also communal by nature and seem to show empathy towards one another and altruistic behaviour. So are elephants. However, by this reasoning, termites, ants and bees should also have self-recognition, right? Yet they don't. That's because scientists also say that a big brain along with a developed neo-cortex area as found in mammals, is crucial to developing self-awareness.

But forget brain size; birds which have vastly different brain structures and last shared a common ancestor with mammals 300 million years ago, don't even have a neo-cortex to begin with. Its absence, therefore, not only indicates that higher cognitive skills like awareness can develop independently along separate evolutionary lines but that totally dissimilar structures can produce similar abilities. Might this extend to complex inanimate structures as well? Why not?

For instance, a new robot has been deve-loped at Meiji University in Japan that can, by using "artificial
consciousness", tell the difference between its own image in a mirror, and an identical robot mimicking it. Junichi Takeno who heads the research team says that the robot is able to recognise its reflection without confusing it with the image of another robot with the same physical aspect because the mirror image cognition system is based on a humanlike neural network.

At the same time, there's another artificial intelligence-related computer phenomenon that can't be overlooked as far as the future of self-recognition and awareness goes - the internet. For one thing, the net's enormous
interconnectivity is hugely more social and intimate unto itself than anything biology has produced so far. And its individual cells are made up of almost a billion high performance central processing units.

At some point soon - the absence of a siliconised neo-cortex notwithstanding - one of its zillions of webcams around the world should be able to look at itself in a mirror hanging on the opposite wall of a monitor and, just like a magpie, exclaim silently: "Hey that's me!"

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