Can Animals Crowdsource? Can They Perform “Human” Intelligence Tasks?

Casey Armstrong
Jul 20, 2018 · 5 min read

We all know that we as humans, thanks largely to our neocortex, are pretty smart. Also, thanks to microtasking-platforms and other crowdsourcing-platforms, we all know that there are still many things that we can do that computer programs and algorithms cannot. To top it off, we know that we are great at collaborating, especially when using the internet, and if we combine our mental efforts, we know that we can make big things happen.

We also know that we can crowdsource like nobody’s business. We wrote Wikipedia for goodness sake! We also have helped solve big scientific problems through playing video games like eyewire (mapping the brain), Play to Cure (cancer research), FoldIt (curing diseases by analyzing the building block of life that is the process of protein-folding), and mapping galaxies in Galaxy Zoo.

Nevertheless, in our efforts in this high-flying fast adventure that is crowdsourcing, have we been leaving something out? Maybe all the other living creatures one the plant (i.e., the ones with brains)? Yeah, what about animals! Can they crowdsource/microtask? Let’s think about it…

What is a Human-Intelligence-Task Anyway?

In terms of crowdsourcing, specifically microtasking (small-tasks done online requiring human-judgement), human-intelligence-tasking is all about getting paid (or rewarded) to do work that goes beyond the ability of a computer program/ algorithm. These tasks can be language related, like writing a product description, or it can be about getting an impression based on human-sensibilities, like rating how negative a ‘Tweet’ is. These are things that require some high level thinking. Nevertheless, there are plenty of tasks that need to be done that only require a little bit of intelligence, like drawing a circle around something in a picture, or verifying that one thing is on another thing, etc.

So, how far away are animals from joining in this online marketplace for work? Let’s start with what we know.

What kinds of intelligence do an animals have?

  • Pigs are able to use mirrors, win simple video-games, collaborate with a human on a video game, remember directions, recognize words, and have self-awareness.
  • Baby chicks can do math
  • Pigeons recognize humans by their face. Also, they see at a much higher frame-rate. (That’s why when a car is coming toward them, they do not immediately move. To them, the situation is happening in slow-motion!)
  • Dolphins have language…Some have even argued that if you could give them a voice box, they might even be able to talk.
  • Hens can learn new behavior from watching tv and use it to complete mazes.
  • Unlike dogs, pigs can use computer-joysticks (in video-games designed for chimpanzees, video here). Pigs have also saved people who were drowning!

However, beyond specific instances like these, and beyond the consensus among scientists that it is there, much about animal intelligence is unknown. However, the same thing may be said about human intelligence. Understanding our brains has been one of this century’s grandest challenges. (The whole ‘prove that you are intelligent’ challenge is almost as hard as the ‘prove that you’re conscious’ one.)

Can Animals Be Information Workers?

The real question is can animal-intelligence be turned into information-related work...

Of course, there is no immediate answer. However, animals have proven being adept at virtual environments including video-games. Dogs are soon to even have their very own gaming console. How close that is to proving they can get real-work done online is another question.

Keep in mind, too, animals are regularly part of studies, in the lab or out in the wild, which almost constitutes something called passive crowdsourcing where they simply behave as usual and are observed through various methods.

In terms of what kind of tasks animals may be able to perform, here are a few suggestions:

  • listening to audio files to detect patterns.
  • Using a joystick and their nose to draw shapes around specific things in photos.
  • Motion tracking objects in videos.
  • Object recognition in photo-sets. If you remember the recent crowdsourced effort to search for the missing Malaysian airlines plane. Imagine the volunteer-effort being able to search 1,000 times faster with the help of pigeons?

Should Animals Be Working Online?

Ok, so maybe animals could be valuable workers online. However, whether or not animals should be led to engage in online-platforms is one question, but the bigger question is “What for?”.

However, there is already a lot of talk about the unfair treatment of animals, and thinking about bringing them online to work opens the subject up. To take this point further, there is another video-game where people can play with factory farm-pigs in real time (see the video in the link).

It’s called “Pig Chase”, and the pigs (in front of a big touch screen during their play-time) collaborate with a human player (through an app on a tablet-computer). The goal is to get a shape into a target area. Their snout first touches it (after you and the pig wrangle it in from moving around), and then the pig drags it into a virtually displayed target.

As you may see, this game unveils an uncomfortable reality. This game shows us that, virtual or not, animals can be more than commodities, they can be our coworkers. Moreover, if more and more of these types of games come out, and they might, especially with advances in virtual-reality on the rise, how will that affect how we as humans perceive animals and our treatment of them?

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

Casey Armstrong

Written by

Technical Writer obsessed with #API’s, #VR, #Chatbots, #Crowdsourcing, #Microvolunteering, #PortableHomelessShelters, and the future!!

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade