The winners of the Dutch Accenture Innovation Awards, the Crowbar (Crowded Cities) startup offers a smart machine that trains crows to pick up cigarette butts from the street, The Next Web reports.
Crowded Cities started more or less on a lark. Industrial designers Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman came up with the idea when they noticed the tremendous amount of cigarette butts around them in a park in Amsterdam – and started theorizing a solution.
The most obvious answer was robots, but neither of them thought it would be very elegant to pull off the complex programming needed to vacuum up butts in-between bike wheels and other city nooks and crannies. So they turned their attention to birds.
“First we thought of pigeons,” Ruben says, “which would have been great because there are so many of them in cities.” Unfortunately, a quick search revealed that there was not much known about the intelligence of pigeons, and that training them would be hard.
Luckily there’s another type of bird that loves living near humans and possesses the ability to problem-solve and learn autonomously: crows.
Crows are currently ranked among the most intelligent species on the planet, with an encephalization quotient (fancy word for smarts) equal to that of chimpanzees.
Thanks to their understanding of causality, crows can conceptualize, create, and use tools. They play, learn from each other, and can manipulate humans into helping them out. Some types of crows can even count.
Joshua Klein is creator of the Crow Box, an open source project that’s basically a vending machine for crows. The machine is designed to autonomously train crows to pick up change and bring it back in exchange for peanuts.
The first step presents the crow with food and a butt on a tray in the machine. The food is always there, next to the butt, so the crow learns to come back for more.
The second step takes away the food, and only drops it just after the crow arrives. “So the crow gets used to the machine doing things,” Bob says.
“The third step is crucial,” the authors say. In this step, the food is completely removed, leaving only the butt on the tray. The crow, used to getting food only for being there, will start to nose around, eventually knocking the butt off the tray into the butt receptacle. The food drops when that happens.