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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Backsliding and the Computer: How Bow manipulates his World

You may be asking yourself: what about the touchscreen computer? Has Bow made any progress on that? Isn't that the whole point of the experiment? To show that he can write by himself? Why do I keep harping on honesty and moral values? Aren't we just trying to show how smart Bow is and how well he can use language?

Well, no, we're not just trying to show that. But as far as his being smart, I think there's no question about that.Take, for instance, the way he's manipulated the situation with the computer.

At first, Bow did seem excited about using the touchscreen computer. He poked at it with his chopstick. He picked out random letters. He refused to say anything meaningful while Lawrence was in with him, but when Lawrence was emptying out the potty in a different part of the pen system, Bow would write things like "out", "in" and "tire". It was a big deal for him that nobody watch while he was typing.

Because the "text-to-speech" program is in English, I can't be the one introducing the computer. I have to maintain Bow's Hebrew. So Bow continues to spell with me on  the glass. Meanwhile,we decided that Bow would need to spell on the computer to get to go out in the big pen outside, or to  ask for an extra snack from Lawrence late in the afternoon.

At first we waited and waited for Bow to ask for these things using the computer. I would put out the snack.  Lawrence would show Bow how much fun the bigger outer pen could be. We thought it was only a matter of time till Bow asked for these things, and then he would start to converse with Lawrence using the computer. But instead, he never asked for the snack, and the snack ended up getting discontinued.  Eventually Lawrence started letting Bow ask to  go out in the outer pen with only his pinky on Bow. So, really, no language work was being done on the computer.

Because Bow didn't ask for the snack, Lawrence started feeling bad that he wasn't giving Bow anything in the afternoon. So, unbeknownst to me, Lawrence started stealthily giving Bow tic tacs. Bow was happy. He thought Lawrence was a really nice guy. And no work got done!

Trust is so important in every relationship. Consistency is very  important, too.  But Bow is definitely  a smart fellow to be able to turn every conflict into a neat little opportunity for himself.

There is not going to be any progress with Bow -- or with other chimpanzees  -- until the psychological and moral aspect of each relationship is as much an object of study as are the formal proofs of intelligence and linguistic ability. You can't have one without the other.

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