Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

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Published · 2-minute read

Konrad Lorenz Hacked Animals

Konrad Lorenz was a well-known Austrian zoologist. He was famous, at least in part, for his experiments with geese.

He popularized what’s known as imprinting. One example of imprinting is that during the early developmental stages of goslings, the first moving object they see is what they consider their ‘mother’. They will follow it around and make ‘distressed’ noises when not near it. You may be able to find an English translation of his endearing essay Das Gänsekind Martina (‘The Goose Child Martina’) somewhere. In it, he describes in detail the first time he became a gosling’s ‘father’.

For a while now, I’ve been arguing in favor of David Deutsch’s view that animals are unconscious robots because all they do is mindlessly execute inborn algorithms which are the result of biological evolution. Imprinting provides particularly interesting evidence of how easy to fool and robotic animals are, which is in line with the view that they’re not sentient.

Lorenz became gosling Martina’s father by accident. He wanted to watch her hatch and then stuck around a bit longer to watch her first moments. She soon looked at him intently until he moved and made a sound. Afterwards, whenever he tried to leave her, she would make what one might consider, as I said, ‘desperate’ sounds and ran after him whenever she saw him. At night, she woke up every 60 to 75 minutes to make a sound that Lorenz interpreted to mean something like ‘I’m here, where are you?’, and she wouldn’t stop until Lorenz responded. It makes sense that in nature, where being separated from the mother at a young age means certain death, genes which code for this behavior spread through the gene pool.

You can see imprinted geese following Lorenz around in this video (ignore the annoying ‘aren’t animals mysterious and magical’ music).

The reason I say Lorenz hacked certain animals is that he understood, in detail, how to use loopholes to manipulate them into doing certain things, the same way hackers do with computers. (To be clear, I use the terms ‘hack’ and ‘manipulate’ in a neutral way like programmers do. I’m not criticizing Lorenz or saying he did something immoral.)

People also hack animals by imitating their calls or teaching them tricks. Hacking animals, like hacking computers, consists of using weak spots in their programming and security to gain access to privileged information or to perform privileged actions. Sometimes animals hack each other, like when parasitic birds lay eggs in other birds’ nests and get them to raise their chicks to avoid the burden of child rearing.

To understand just how robotic imprinting is, consider smartphones that can be unlocked by looking at the screen. To set up this feature, you go through a ‘training phase’ during which you look at your phone and tilt it at different angles. Throughout this process, the phone uses the front camera to scan your face and ‘learn’ what you look like. This is essentially the process Martina went through, albeit with a couple of differences: imprinting works only shortly after birth and cannot be undone. (Imprinting is not the only example of how robotic geese are – there are several additional examples in Lorenz’ essay.)

This similarity between phone ‘imprinting’ and goose imprinting leads me to believe that humans’ programming skills have pretty much caught up with animal software, if not exceeded it. The same cannot be said of hardware – we have yet to build robots that can fly as well as condors or run as fast as cheetahs. We don’t even know yet how to build self-replicating hardware, which is something self-replicating molecules ‘figured out’ billions of years ago. Which in turn leads me to believe that biological evolution has developed rich knowledge about how to build hardware, but less knowledge about how to write sophisticated software for its hardware.

Much of animal research involves understanding, meaning mentally replicating, animals’ algorithms. Such as when Karl von Frisch figured out what the bees’ waggle dance means and how it works.

I’m no expert on Lorenz’ work, but I suspect he never concluded that the geese he worked with were just unconscious little robots, uncritically and mindlessly executing their genes’ instructions. In a conversation with Popper decades after Martina, he says he thinks roosters are conscious.* In a way, hacking goes both ways: animal researchers like Lorenz hack animals in the sense that they understand how animals work and get animals to do stuff, while some animals unwittingly hack humans in that they ‘get’ humans to fall in love with and anthropomorphize them.

* Karl Popper, Alle Menschen sind Philosophen, eds. Heidi Bohnet, Klaus Stadler, 8th edition 2018, Piper, Munich, p. 49.

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