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Parrot Learning To Use Internet

July 19, 2000

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ Polly wanna Web-surf?

That’s what a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a handful of students are trying to figure out. They’re spending their days training a gray parrot named Arthur to use a computer to surf the Internet _ hoping to keep boredom at bay for their feathered friend.

``Parrots are very social creatures,″ said Irene Pepperberg, a visiting professor of animal behavior. ``In the wild, they live in flocks. ... People buy these animals as pets, they interact with them a lot in the morning and they interact with them a lot in the evening, but then they leave them alone eight or nine hours a day.″

Those pet parrots become bored, she said, and start to chew their feathers, scream, or exhibit other behavioral problems. If they had something to do, she reasoned, the birds would be happier and less aggressive.

Benjamin Resner, a research assistant at MIT, came up with the idea of teaching lonely parrots to use a computer to check out the Internet.

It’s no joke. Susan Farlow, who runs Jacot Unlimited, a bird-behavior consultant company in Lincoln, Mass., thinks the idea could work. More importantly, she said, if the idea flies, it will prevent many birds from hurting themselves in their fits of boredom and anxiety.

``There’s a huge number of pet parrots out there, and many of them have significant dysfunctional behavior,″ Farlow said.

Arthur _ in the brainy yet punchy style that typifies MIT _ has been given the nickname ``Wart,″ after Merlin the magician’s nickname for King Arthur in the book ``The Once and Future King.″

So far, he doesn’t seem interested in much more than pecking at his virtual counterparts when parrot pictures pop up on the screen. But Resner envisions a day when Arthur can play games, enter chat rooms filled with other parrots, or talk to his owner through the computer.

``When people hear about this, a lot of people think it’s almost a sitcom-like interaction where the bird goes and checks the stock quotes,″ Resner said. ``It’s not like that.″

Resner and some of the students at MIT built a joystick-like controller for Arthur that can be moved side to side and up and down. He works the joystick by inserting his beak into a hole at the top of it and pulling it in a certain direction.

The next step will be building what Pepperberg and Resner are calling ``InterPet Explorer,″ a prototype that would only include Web sites that would intrigue Arthur and his fellow parrots.

Pepperberg expects that the computer would probably be limited to such sites as those that feature music and videos that would enable Arthur to look at different wildlife scenarios.

Resner, who developed children’s software before he arrived at MIT, will begin working full-time on the project in August. Resner hopes that if he can create a device that Arthur can easily use, he will be able to use that knowledge to create new ways for severely handicapped children to surf the Net.

Though some universities might have doubts about the worthiness of this project, both Pepperberg and Resner say they’ve received nothing but encouragement from the school.

``The comments that we’re hearing aren’t, like, `This is too crazy, tone it down a little bit and make it more mainstream’,″ Resner said. ``They say, `Go faster, hire more people, work longer hours.‴

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