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What Does It Mean To Be Human?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I tackle this question in two very different ways, in two very different places this week.

First, the latest in my BBC Future column, Uniquely Human, was published today: Is language unique to humans?

When Alex unexpectedly passed away after only thirty-one years of life, his last words to his dearest friend were, “You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.” A touching sentiment indeed, but all the more impressive because Alex was an African Grey Parrot. Over the course of thirty years of work between psychologist Irene Pepperberg and Alex, purchased from a Chicago pet store at one year of age, the parrot amassed a vocabulary of some 150 words. According to one report, he was able to recognize fifty different objects, could count quantities up to six, and could distinguish among seven colours and five shapes. He also understood the ideas of “bigger” and “smaller”, and “same” and “different”.

Read the whole article to find out how – while impressive – this doesn’t count as language.

Second, you may know that a new website called Being Human quietly launched last week. You may remember the piece I wrote last year about the first Being Human conference: The Illusion of Being Human.

Now, I’ve written a piece for the site about one of the ways in which the human mind vastly outperforms even the most sophisticated computers. But you might be surprised exactly in what domain of knowledge artificial intelligence is still seriously underdeveloped.

Earlier this year, car manufacturer Volvo announced that by the year 2020, they will have developed automotive technology that will make it such that “no one will be killed or seriously injured in one of its new vehicles.” A lofty goal, to be sure, but how?

For one thing, they want to reduce the damage done and lives lost that come when a car crashes into an animal crossing the road. One of the mechanisms for improving the safety of their vehicles comes from a system through which a camera at the front of the car would detect the presence of a large animal in the road – horses, cows, deer, elk, moose – and respond accordingly. (No word, unfortunately, on whether the system would detect any road-crossing chickens…)

According to a Volvo press release, around 200 people each year are killed in the US as the result of car accidents with wild animals, mainly deer. The numbers are higher in other countries. Canada reports 40,000 car-animal collisions each year, and in 2010, Sweden counted 47,000. If Volvo can train their cars to identify large animals in the road and automatically hit the brakes, lives would surely be saved, both for humans and non-human animals.

Read the whole article to find out what this has to do with the human mind. And then explore the site. There’s a lot of good stuff there, and lots of writers’ names should seem familiar…

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. marclevesque 7:11 pm 10/17/2012

    “What makes human language unique is not that it allows us to communicate with each other, but that it allows us to do so with infinite variety”

    Animals use sounds, postures, movement actions, body parts’ positions in relation to other body parts’ positions, etc, and it allows them to communicate with infinite variety.

    – isn’t word usage is a unique human behavior by definition.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Stuart Bruff 3:43 am 10/18/2012

    At last we know … it crossed the road to test the new Volvo braking system.

    It should also make life easier for the elephant crossing the road to see what the chicken’s up to.

    Will the system work on humans (particularly, scaling down to children)?

    Tree and lamp-post recognition and avoidance might be another good thing to train Volvos for.

    Link to this

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