I've been thinking recently about ways to use technology to improve the lives of animals, and to communicate with them. I was lucky enough to get to talk about this at the Science Buzz Cafe at Maker Faire , and I hope to write on the subject from time to time.
It would be a mistake to be too serious. We shouldn't think only in terms of animal needs, feeding them, protecting them, providing them with affordable health care. People love to use technology to play and animals are likely to feel the same. My brother Tim remarks that since pigeons are better than people at spatial thinking, maybe we could use that to create a pigeon video game.
To quote from Becoming a Tiger:
At the task of looking at two shapes and figuring out which is the mirror image of a third shape, pigeons and college students were equally accurate. But pigeons were faster. The researchers suggest that pigeons use some different, automatic process, and that they need it more than we do, because they fly around and look down on things that are oriented arbitrarily, whereas the things we look at are more consistently oriented. ...navigating in three dimensions must be harder than navigating in two. So we shouldn't feel bad about being inferior to pigeons at mental rotation. But we should avoid going on game shows where we would face teams of pigeons at mental rotation tasks, because that really would be embarrassing.
(The more I think about this, the more I am grieved by this vision of our species swarming spiderlike across the plane of Flatland. Memo to self: remember to look up.)
The experiments showing that pigeons are spatial thinking virtuosos take place in labs. Pigeons peck at keys to indicate which of several images is the same as another one, but rotated in three dimensions. If they're right, they get a snack. That's practically a game already. A boring one.
So maybe you could design a video game that involved lots of three-D navigation, maybe through virtual forests. Players would have to swoop through without touching anything. Pigeons might play that, because, like people, animals enjoy doing things they're good at. (Germans call this Funktionslust.) I think a pigeon would have to play by pecking keys, since a joystick could be a problem.
Maybe pigeons can whip us when it comes to rotating 3-D objects, but I'm sure there are lots of areas besides joystick technique where we would totally whip pigeons. For one thing, I'm not sure a pigeon could identify with an avatar. It might have to be a first-person shooter type game.
This brings us to frigatebirds, also called Man of War birds. They're huge glamorous seabirds, mostly black, with long long pointed wings, and long forked tails. Brilliant flyers, they can stay in the air for a week at a time. They're one of several species that get a lot of their food by robbing other birds. They spot another bird with a fish, say a gull, and they chase that gull, they outfly that gull, they invade its airspace, they pull on its feathers, they harass it until the gull drops the fish or coughs it up, and then the frigatebird grabs it on the fly.
You see where I'm going with this, don't you? That's right. Grand Theft Frigatebird.
Would a sweet, peaceful pigeon get a kick out of role-playing piracy? There's only one way to find out. In fact, if you proposed to shed light on whether violent video games make people violent, you could even get grant money.
We could try adding a magnetic steering component to the game. New research on how birds use the earth's magnetic field to orient themselves indicates that they may use fancy molecules that link a carotenoid, a porphyrin, and a spherical fullerene. In the test tube, these molecules react to very weak magnetic fields. These molecules resemble molecules in birds' eyes called cryptochromes. (Wait a minute. A spherical fullerene? You mean... a buckyball? Yes! If birds had them first, I wonder if they took out patents?)
I think it would be a good practice for us to design systems geared to sensory systems we don't have ourselves. Echolocation videogames for bats and dolphins. Sophisticated olfactory videogames for dogs and wolves. UV videogames for bumblebees.
It would be good intellectual exercise. It would be good moral exercise. And it would give us valuable experience, which would help us get cool jobs if people suddenly need to communicate through new and unusual channels when our civilization encounters aliens.