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Is it a bird? is it a bot? New contest tests algorithm against animal
AI 4 min read No comments

Is it a bird? is it a bot? New contest tests algorithm against animal

AI is advancing at a rapid rate, and a common sci-fi scenario that fascinates commentators is the possibility that an AI will become smarter than a human. As we've previously described, artificial intelligence works very differently from a human brain, but the dream is still to have an AI with a high general, problem-solving intelligence. Before we get there though, AI will have to take on the animal world.

Can our most cutting-edge AIs outsmart a bird? A rat? Or a chimp? That's the question that the Animal-AI Olympics, a new contest that will begin this June, seeks to answer. This contest, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and Prague-based research institute GoodAI, aims to "benchmark the current level of various AIs against different animal species using a range of established animal cognition tasks." $10,000 in prizes stand to be awarded to the winners.

This ain't no game

AIs have been enjoying a good year when it comes to competing against humans, reaching milestone events like DeepMind's triumph in StarCraft 2 and even complex physical games like Jenga.  Video games are great for training AIs and have produced great results. Yet, even complex games like StarCraft have basically produced artificial intelligence that excels in acting within the closed box of the game 'rules'.

Put the AI in an unfamiliar situation or environment, and it usually fails to apply anything from the skills it learned getting good at a specific task. This is why newer AI 'training courses' are using randomly generated environments to help AI get better at adapting to new situations. To take on the natural world, AIs would have to demonstrate a much more flexible kind of general intelligence characteristic of humans, and many animal species too. 

You say bird-brained like it's a bad thing

While us humans like to pat ourselves on the back for our own smarts and rightly value our advanced technology, it's important not to underestimate our animal friends. The video below shows a crow solving a problem straight out of Aesop's Fables, in which a crow figures out that it can access food in a container of water by placing rocks into the container, displacing the water and causing the food to rise to the top. On the other hand, sometimes animals aren't so great at problem solving and get stuck on things, like the dog who can't pass through the gap with a big stick.

How smart are crows? See for yourself in this video from the BBC:

Crows have a deserved reputation for intelligence, being good problem solvers and tool users. They can also recognize faces, another area in which AI has made great strides, and even conspire with each other and co-ordinate group activity. 

Then there's chimpanzees and higher primates, of course, our cousins whose intelligence may be most similar to our own, thanks to genetic closeness and the ability to manipulate objects with their hands (something that we're also training AIs to do, hence the Jenga training). But even animals with very different brains and bodies from ourselves, such as octopi, have displayed general intelligence and crafty problem-solving abilities that put most advanced AIs to shame. That's not even counting invertebrates like ants and bees, whose 'swarm intelligence', is being studied to help develop self-driving cars.

In this video from the Smithsonian, you can see how an octopus uses tools:

Would you bet on a bird or a bot?

In June, the Animal-AI Olympics goes live, and the project will release training environments and objects based on animal abilities for AI to practice with and learn from. But to display general intelligence, the tests for the actual contests will be different enough from the training environments, so that the artificial intelligence can't just repeat what it learned, but needs to apply its training to a new situation. The final results should be available in December, so by then we'll have a good idea of whether modern AI is indeed, smarter than a crow, dog or chimp.

What do you think the outcome will be? Have you seen any AI with a high general intelligence? Do you think we are close to developing AIs that can match animals in this regard? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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