Take 10 with... Alex Taylor

Associate Professor Alex Taylor, Director of the Animal Minds Lab in the School of Psychology, gives us 10 minutes of his time to talk about comparing different intelligences, creative challenges and having low expectations.

Associate Professor Alex Taylor, Director of the Animal Minds Lab in the School of Psychology
Associate Professor Alex Taylor, Director of the Animal Minds Lab in the School of Psychology

1.  Describe your research topic to us in ten words or less.

I find ways to compare how different minds are thinking.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

I’m a comparative psychologist. I compare the minds of animals to humans to see where there are similarities and differences between them. This focus is now developing to include the comparison of artificial intelligences to those with a biological origin.

One of my main areas of research is smart birds – New Caledonian crows and kea. These crows use tools, which is a really rare behaviour in the animal kingdom and so allows us to test the effect of tool use on the evolution of intelligence. I work with the kea because they are one of the most playful species on the planet. It’s really interesting to try and understand what a species with such a high level of play and sociality might be thinking. My third choice of species is the domestic dog, for two reasons. The first being that I really love dogs  and secondly, there’s been this amazing unplanned experiment over the last 30,000 years where humans have domesticated dogs, and I’m really interested in the results – how have we shaped dogs’ minds?

Each of these animal species has the potential to teach us how intelligence evolves independently in species separated from us by long spans of evolutionary time. Another way to study how intelligence emerges is to look at AI (artificial intelligence). Due to all the amazing work that has been happening in artificial intelligence recently now is a great time to be comparing biological and machine minds. It is exciting as there is a lot of synergy in this space, with the approaches developed in comparative psychology having applications to AI and vice versa.

3.  Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

My day-to-day is mainly spent on designing experiments, reading, problem solving, and commenting on or writing manuscripts, with a lot of Zoom meetings thrown in as well. These days it is hard to carve out a lot of time to spend with the animals I work with. Generally, I try to function as the problem solver for my PhD students. I’m helping them out by talking through challenges and making sure we’re asking the right questions of our subjects.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

I really enjoy the creative challenge. It is hard to create a problem that gives us real insight into how another mind might be thinking. Often we seem to see a reflection of our own intelligence, but that can actually be a mirage that reflects our bias towards anthropomorphism.

5.  Tell us about something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

Something that stands out for me happened with the kea. I was down in Christchurch doing a workshop with my PhD students to improve their skills for training and working with the kea, and help with their welfare.

Two kea were in the little river that runs through their enclosure, both perched on a log, rocking it backwards and forwards together, so it splashed in the water, just for fun. I knew kea played a lot but this really stood out, the kea were taking a break to play together. We all stopped working to watch, and then we started thinking of other ways we could get them to play like that. It’s really nice when those things happen; it’s such a feel-good experience when you see these animals doing the kind of behaviours you’re interested in, apropos of nothing. It’s a lazy, summer afternoon and they just want to play.

6.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

There are a lot of challenges in my research – people say to never work with animals or children!

I think the biggest challenge is dealing with the high failure rate. If a third of our pilot experiments are working out, that’s amazing. But that means that the majority of the time our pilots fail, which can be hard to take. The way I deal with that is to set my expectations really low. That way it is the successes, rather than the failures, that surprise me. I still struggle to do this sometimes though. Even after 12 years I can find it so hard not to raise my expectations when we design a really nice pilot. You need a thick skin to keep having this general optimism that at some point one will work – but maybe it’s not going to be today!

7.  What questions have emerged as a result of your recent work?

I am really excited by the questions some of our recent work on animal emotion has generated. For example, we have shown that New Caledonian crows become more optimistic (as judged by their reactions to glass half full/empty situations) after performing tool use. This raises the question of whether we can improve the welfare of animals in our homes and zoos by trying to discover which of their behaviours is best at putting them in the best mood. We also recently had a study come out showing dogs can imagine jealousy inducing situations between their owners and other dogs, which raises really interesting questions about what else dogs can imagine about their world and how similar or different their emotional experiences might be to our own.

I am also fascinated by the questions raised by one of our recent findings showing how bird intelligence is structured. We found that kea can not only judge the probability of different events, but also integrate different types of information into their judgements. This was a real surprise as it suggests that birds have independently evolved the type of domain-general thinking we see in humans, where we effortlessly combine together different types of information to make predictions. Given the struggle AI has with this type of thinking, birds now offer a really useful perspective on what is needed to create this type of thinking artificially. There is also the possibility of applying this to kea conservation. We may be able to create situations in the wild where we manipulate how kea perceive the odds of gaining food when interacting with humans or human settlements (or even 1080 drops) and so change their behaviour.

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I am hopeful that my research will have impacts on how we interact with the world around us, conservation and AI. We value and show moral concern towards agents that are intelligent, so one way to raise awareness of what we stand to lose as we enter the Anthropocene is by highlighting the intelligence of the other species on our planet. There are also more direct applications of my research to conservation, such as work I am involved in examining which materials kea prefer to interact with, and how long kea remember to avoid baits similar to those used in 1080 drops after they taste bad. For AI, already several of the problems developed in my lab for testing animal intelligence have been presented to AIs.

More generally, I have developed a new framework for designing intelligence tests, called the signature-testing approach. This allows for more refined comparisons of different intelligences and could be developed to train AIs to show signatures of biological intelligence, which is an exciting possibility for future research.

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

Right now I am really excited about a collaboration that is just starting with Professor Michael Witbrock and his Strong AI lab. I am also part of PhyloPys and the ManyBird projects, which are both large international research consortia that organise cognitive experiments across many different animal species. Finally, I have an ongoing collaboration with the University of Cambridge, and the University of Queensland that’s produced some exciting finding.

It is of such benefit to me that I get to work alongside incredible scientists who often have different opinions and ideas about the data we generate. It’s great being able to discuss the experiments and data, debate what our results mean, and design experiments to build our knowledge further.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Have lower expectations about everything! Good things happen very infrequently in science, and you have to develop a thick skin because most things don’t work out. I’ve developed that skin now, but it would have been nice not to have had to learn that the hard way and instead, just have had low expectations from my PhD onwards – I would have then been pleasantly surprised every time something did work out as opposed to getting my hopes up and then seeing them dashed! I’ve become used to these lows and highs, but now I see my PhD students going through this and having to learn this lesson anew. It’s the untold story behind every scientist.

What drives you to keep doing your research?

Every time I look into the eyes of an animal I get this overwhelming curiosity about what it is thinking. Are they thinking in a similar way to us, or in a way that is totally different? This same question applies to the artificial intelligences we are creating. Is a human-like form of intelligence going to emerge in these AIs (as a lot of literature and movies suggests), or are we actually creating a completely alien form of intelligence in our machines? I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, and that mystery captivates me.