Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Animals, Tech and Millennial Cognition

Flower Pot (2011) by Boon Mee, an elephant at Samutprakarn Zoo, Thailand. Image Source: New Scientist.

More and more, scientists are using high tech devices to test the intelligence of extremely bright animals. The animals take well to the gadgets and gizmos we give them. But it is hard to know how much of this reflects a bizarre Millennial metareality, which exists between the tools we think we control, the realities the tools create, the human minds the tools mirror, and the animals' responses (both trained and independent) to this whole cloud of cognitive functions and related social messages.

It's easier to see the problem regarding human research into this field prior to the introduction of high tech gadgets.  In the 1950s, zoologists began giving chimpanzees access to paint and paper to test their intelligence. In London, there is an exhibition on right now (until 9 March 2012) at the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL of paintings done by animals, including the above likeness of a flower, done by an elephant, named Boon Yee.  While this painting surely must give us pause, the catch is that the elephant was guided in how he marked the canvas with the brush by having his ears stroked.  You can see another result below, when the elephant was guided to do a portrait of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  It's all a bit literal-minded - and surreal.  Do the animals enjoy these tasks?  Are they moving from trained activities to creating something, guided or not?  It is hard to say. You can see Boon Yee, who is a minor animal Internet celebrity, actually painting the royal picture below the jump. Other paintings by him, such as this one of an elephant, are shown on Youtube and apparently auctioned to the public for handsome sums by his keepers.

Image Source: Daily Picks and Flicks.

Incidentally, all artworks created by animals are not subject to copyright, because they are determined to be 'non-creative works.' This shows the inherent contradiction that arises when we hand an animal one of our tools.  There is an odd imposition of the modes of human intelligence upon animals, such that we cannot trust what we witness, and we cannot really know what they think they are doing.  It is almost as if we can only recognize intelligence if it is expressed or modified through tools that we developed to suit our bodies, minds and needs - a human-machine symbiosis we barely grasp within our own species, especially these days.

In short, if an elephant paints a flower in a way that we would recognize, using a brush designed for our hands, even if the creature is guided (and clever enough to understand the prompts, desires of the human researcher, and even the desired outcome) then it is 'intelligent.'  While this could be true, there is a two-sided mystery here about inter-species communication and humans' deep-seated dependence on their own tools, which clearly colours the findings.  Just as a start, some of these projects assume that animals see the way we do, which they don't. Their eyes are formed differently.

Also below the jump, a chimpanzee that does amazing, apparently superhuman computer memory games at a Japanese university (Hat tip: BBC via Thoughtware TV).  What strikes me in the video below is how much the chimp looks like your average Couch Potato Web Surfer, snacks at hand.

Boon Yee the elephant paints Prince William and Kate Middleton with a Flag of St. George. Video Source: Youtube.

Ayumu's memory demonstrated in computer game tests. Video Source: Youtube.

From BBC: "Ayumu the chimp can remember the location and order of a set of numbers in less time than it takes the average human to blink. The prodigous [young animal] can solve the puzzle in 60 milliseconds, at Kyoto University, Japan. Ayumu is the son of Ai, a chimpanzee whose intelligence has been studied for over 30 years by Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa."


  1. Have you read Giorgio Agamben's THE OPEN? It is a short book (77 pages or so) that has some things to say about 'the anthropological machine' that relate directly to the point you've made.

  2. Very interesting, Zig, thank you for this reference; I'll have a look at it: