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Algorithmic Animal Behavior

If studied closely, animals can be seen (at least in some cases like these examples) to follow simplistic, algorithmic behavior patterns (like software where the designer didn't think about some potential cases).


The digger wasp, for instance, seems to display highly intelligent brood-tending behavior. Having dug a nest, it flies off in search of a caterpillar, overpowers and kills it, drags it into the nest, and lays eggs on it. The emerging young are thereby provided with the nourishment they need and find protection in the nest, which the wasp seals. Interrupt the sequence of partactions, however, and it soon becomes clear that no form of intelligence is at work here. Returning to its hole with the caterpillar, the wasp first deposits it in the entrance and inspects the interior, then reappears at the entrance, head foremost, and drags its quarry inside. If, while the wasp is inspecting its hole, the caterpillar is removed and deposited some distance away, the wasp will continue to search until it has rediscovered the caterpillar and then will drag it to the entrance again, whereupon the whole cycle-depositing, inspecting, etc. – begins all over again. Take away the caterpillar ten or twenty times, and the wasp will still deposit it at the entrance and embark on a tour of the hole, with which it is thoroughly familiar by this time. The insect continues to be guided by the same commands, in computer fashion, and evidently finds it hard to make any change in the overall sequence. Only after thirty or forty repetitions will the wasp finally drag the caterpillar into its nest without further inspection. Yet the digger wasp shows a great aptitude for learning where other procedures are concerned. While in flight, it memorizes the route which it must take on the ground when returning to the nest with its prey – a very considerable feat of learning. On the other hand, the burial of its prey is an instinctive action and, thus, strongly programmed. The wasp is almost incapable of influencing or altering this part of its behavior by learning, because it is controlled by an innate and extremely incorrigible mechanism.


Once stimulated, whole cycles of action can proceed by themselves. In the squirrel, food storing consists of the following part-actions: scraping away soil, depositing the nut, tamping it down with the muzzle, covering it over, and pressing down the soil. A squirrel reared indoors will still perform these actions in full, even in the absence of soil. It carries the nut into a corner, where it starts to dig, deposits the nut in the (nonexistent) hole, rams it home with its muzzle (even though it merely rolls away in the process), covers up the imaginary hole, and presses down the nonexistent soil. And the squirrel still does all these things even when scrupulous care has been taken to ensure that it has never set eyes on a nut before or been given an opportunity to dig or conceal objects.

Elliot Temple on May 21, 2003

Messages (6)

Another example of a simplistic animal algorithm from the same book.


> The toad reacts just as unselectively at mating time when faced with the task of finding a mate. The male leaps indiscriminately at any moving body and embraces it. Should the object of its attentions be another male toad, the latter emits a rapid series of cries, whereupon the former releases its hold. The mating-minded toad sooner or later encounters a female, whose spawn it fertilizes, but it has no innate "image" of a prospective mate. Waggle your finger in front of a male toad and it will mount and embrace it in exactly the same manner.

curi at 1:52 PM on November 26, 2019 | #14595 | reply | quote


> How little such reactions are associated with intelligence was shown by experiments with turkeys. To the turkey hen, the characteristic cheeping of turkey chicks is the key stimulus which arouses brood-tending behavior. Conceal a loudspeaker which emits this cheeping sound inside a stuffed polecat – one of the turkey's natural foes – and the turkey hen will take it protectively under her wing. Deprive the turkey hen of her hearing, on the other hand, and she will kill her own young because the appropriate key stimulus fails to reach her IRM.

There are other examples like birds looking for a particular visual pattern and you can make something out of cardboard that looks really quite different but triggers the algorithm. Or lizards that look for a blue stripe on other lizards to identify males vs. females and you can fool them with paint to add or hide the stripe.

curi at 1:58 PM on November 26, 2019 | #14596 | reply | quote

This is a typical example of people's evidence that animals are intelligent:

Cat Saves Toddler From Falling Down Stairs (1min video)

The second comment is notable because it relates to what algorithm is triggering and why it evolved:

> That’s the exact behavior that mother cats display when their kittens go too far. So cute how she tried to lift him by the scruff.

People seem unaware that fairly simple pattern recognition could be responsible.

curi at 5:24 PM on March 19, 2020 | #16046 | reply | quote

Hi Curi,

What are your thoughts on Koko the gorilla? I assume we could program a non-AGI algorithm that was similarly able to communicate through sign language but I wanted to get your thoughts.



Patrick B at 10:35 AM on July 29, 2020 | #16929 | reply | quote

I haven't read any research papers on Koko and I don't trust the accuracy of popular stories. Apparently others have had a similar issue:


> Criticism from some scientists centered on the fact that while publications often appeared in the popular press about Koko, scientific publications with substantial data were fewer in number.

One of the things that *might* be going on with Koko and dogs is that they're programmable by human trainers. Being programmable is quite different than learning. This might be due primarily due to lack of selection pressure to evolve good software security systems, but there could also be some advantages e.g. for cooperation.

curi at 11:04 AM on July 29, 2020 | #16930 | reply | quote

> This might be due primarily due to lack of selection pressure to evolve good software security systems

Has there *ever* been evolutionary pressure to evolve this?

ppl usually don't think that there's anything deep going on with birds that have been programmed to say some words. i don't see why it'd be any different for gorillas besides parochial misconceptions.

i think DD mentions like rudimentary memes in pre-human species, that might be one reason they're different, but i'm not convinced it's significant or applicable here.

Anonymous at 10:45 PM on August 4, 2020 | #16974 | reply | quote

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