Kea can use touchscreens but think the virtual is real

Clever Kea (Nestor notabilis) can use touchscreens with their tongues and perceive the virtual world as real, according to New Zealand (Aotearoa) research, published in Biology Letters.

Kea are an incredibly intelligent parrot that live in the alpine regions of the Te Wai Pounamu (South Island).

Now, researchers from the University of Auckland have tested whether they’re smart and capable enough to use technology. It turns out they can absolutely use touchscreens with their tongues.

“A parrot’s beak is a lot like your fingernail: it won’t activate a touchscreen,” says study author Patrick Wood, from the University of Auckland. “So, we had to teach them to lick the screen with their tongues. Once they acquired this skill, they quickly gained confidence using the touchscreens and they really seem to enjoy it, too.”

With such dexterity, you’d reckon they might be able to vote for themselves for NZ Bird of the Year 2021.

The problem is that the kea couldn’t determine whether the world on the screen was real or not.

To learn this, the researchers trained a group of kea at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, Christchurch, to operate a touchscreen laptop with their tongues. They then set up a series of tasks in which a ball was placed on a seesaw with a box on either side. When the seesaw tipped, the kea had to choose which box it rolled into.

In both virtual and real worlds, the kea easily identified which box the ball rolled into, but things got a bit confusing when the two worlds collided.

Read more: Bruce the beakless kea uses tools to spruce himself up

In another scenario, the seesaw was virtual but the boxes were real. The kea continued to look in the real boxes, expecting them to contain a ball.

This suggested that the kea were unable to distinguish between the virtual and real worlds, and expected a real ball to be in the box.

The researchers performed the same test with 19-month-old babies and found that they didn’t expect the virtual ball to be in a real box, showing that they knew the virtual world was fake.

“Our study validates the use of virtual reality and tasks blending the real and virtual worlds for use with this species,” says the University of Auckland’s Amalia Bastos, who led the study. “This potentially has implications for other parrot species as well.

“However, further work is needed to determine whether kea with extensive experience of screens might begin to dissociate the real and virtual worlds, and what types of experiences might shift their understanding of screens closer to that of human infants.”

Does this mean that a Kea could operate touchscreen controls on the SpaceX rocket?

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