Polly wanna chat room?

On the Internet, you can never really be sure if you’re talking to a man or a woman. Or a parrot. And you very well could be addressing the latter if Irene Pepperberg has her way.

Pepperberg, a professor of animal behaviour at MIT’s Media Lab in Boston, is leading a research team that’s exploring using the Internet to help alleviate social isolation and boredom in parrots and other pets.

Pepperberg, who has studied gray parrots for more than two decades, says these birds are social creatures that need companionship from other living things. Grey parrots have walnut-size brains and can reason, comprehend and calculate at the level of a 4-year-old child, Pepperberg says. And like toddlers, they demand attention. Left alone in cages for long stretches of time, they may become withdrawn, disobedient and self-destructive, plucking out their feathers and chewing on their wings.

Pepperberg believes the Internet could help alleviate animal angst. The purpose of the research project, called InterPet Explorer, is to see if parrots can be trained to use computer interfaces and if Internet usage might enhance their lives. “We suggest that intrinsically social, intelligent animals such as parrots – if given the appropriate tools – may, like humans, learn to augment face-to-face social inter-

action with online communities and relationships,” says Pepperberg.

At the MIT Media Lab, a 2-year-old African grey parrot named Arthur is learning the basics of using a computer. Arthur, also known as Wart (after Merlin the magician’s nickname for King Arthur in the book The Once and Future King), is learning how to move a joystick and click levers with his beak to choose images and tunes from a plastic box connected to a modified Web browser. Once he masters that interface, he will be able to use Internet software developed by Pepperberg and her team members – Ben Resner, a children’s software developer and MIT graduate student, and Bruce Blumberg, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab.

The research might also lead to new insights regarding usability and inter- face design for humans. “Traditionally, designers have been very linear in looking at computer interfaces, which is why human beings are still working with computers and a mouse,” says Alexandra Kahn, spokeswoman for the MIT Media Lab. “Working with animals and thinking in terms of ‘How might a parrot or dog interface with a com-puter?’ really broadens that. It’s challenged us to think about design and interfaces in a different way.”

For Wart, the trick seems to be finding parrot infotainment that will engage him; so far, he has not shown much interest in images in early trials. Pepperberg and her team hope to develop software for Wart that would let him play video games and a four-note musical instrument, watch images and live video feeds of wild parrots, and chat with humans, parrots and even other animals.

Imagine the parrot chat room chatter of the future: “SMP seeks SFP. Must have own crackers.”