Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Baby behavior

It is spring here in West Virginia, with the usual coming of lots of baby critters. Babies are a good place to look for complex and knowledgeable instinctive behavior because they have not had time to learn much. Recently I was struck by two such observations.

In one case the critter was a baby starling that had left the nest for some reason but was still too young to fly. I was going to get on my riding mower when I saw it nearby. It saw me and ran to hide under the mower. This concerned me but when I got onto the mower it ran out and hid under my nearby truck. So I started the mower and left to mow.

Clearly this baby knew both when to hide and how to hide. It even knew when to leave one hiding place for another. From a robotic perspective this is very complex behavior. It involves a lot of different perceptions, which in turn requires requires complex concepts like "something to hide from" and "someplace to hide." it also involves a lot of decision making that uses these perceptions and concepts.

Of course we see this sort of behavior all the time, in all animals. But because we take it for granted, we fail to see just how complex and instinctive knowledge based the animal's reasoning must be.

As an aside, note that the running away decision may be much more complex than simply fleeing big moving critters. Our horses are presently sometimes followed by small flocks of cowbirds when they graze. Presumably the birds are feeding on insects, or something, disturbed by the horses. These birds often work within inches of a horse's hooves, even though the horse moves them every few seconds, grazing in motion as I call it.

But if I approach the cowbirds all fly away. Clearly the cowbirds recognize the horses as something not to be feared, while fearing (or at least avoiding) me. They must know the difference between a horse and a human. Note that this need not require them to distinguish horses from cows. They may have a generic concept that we do not understand.

The second case was a groundhog moving her babies from one den to another, over a distance of several hundred feet. She did this by carrying each youngster, one at a time. They were rather large so there was some difficulty.

Unlike cats, groundhogs grasp their baby by the base of the tail, not the scruff of the neck. The baby allows this passively. It also looks like the baby actually curls forward, hence upward, which would facilitate the carry. So not only does the mother know how to carry; the baby knows how to be picked up and then carried. This is instinctive knowledge at work.

Note too that the mother's decision to move the babies to another existing den is impressive. One wonders what specific knowledge, reasons and reasoning led to this decision, as well as what concepts were used in that reasoning?

The point, as always with our examples, is that an instinct is a body of expert knowledge, one that uses concepts that are specific to the critter's nature and needs. The robotic perspective helps us see just how complex these behaviors are.

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