Consider this thought experiment. If you, with your current mind, were suddenly trapped in a crow’s body, would you ever be able to convince any humans that you were intelligent? Maybe not.

Real crows, of course, have some huge disadvantages. They don’t speak English, they don’t understand English, they don’t have other crows who can teach them how to communicate with humans.

When I was a kid, we learned in school that a key difference between humans and other animals is that humans were intelligent enough to use tools, and other animals could not. That lesson was slightly out of date even in the 80’s, as some examples of chimpanzees using tools had already been discovered. In the age of cheap, portable cameras, we’ve discovered a lot more.


Personally, I’m interested in crows because there are a lot of crows in the East Bay hills. They fly around my backyard, cawing at each other, and I keep wondering if there’s some underlying code to it.

You can sink a lot of time into watching videos of crows using tools. They can carve sticks into hooks, drop rocks into a pool to raise the water level, and manipulate sticks in their beak in various ways.

How smart are crows, really? In AI we have the idea of a Turing test, where something is human level intelligent if it seems just like a human through a written channel. Crows can’t pass a Turing test, primarily because they can’t even take a Turing test. They can’t communicate in a written channel in the first place.

I feel like it should be possible to demonstrate that crows are far more intelligent than people thought, by teaching a crow to perform… some sort of intelligent action. Like Clever Hans doing arithmetic, but not a scam.

Things That Aren’t Crows

Are crows the right animal to try out intelligence-training? Wikipedia has an interesting page that claims that forebrain neuron count is the best current predictor of animal intelligence and lists off animal species.

The most interesting thing about this list to me is that humans are not the top of the list! Humans are pretty close, with 20 billion forebrain neurons, but killer whales have twice as many, 40 billion forebrain neurons.

What if killer whales are actually smarter than humans? We don’t really understand whale communication. Project CETI is working on it - to me, it seems like the key limiting factor is data gathering. It’s just incredibly time-consuming to collect whale communication because you have to go boat around looking for whales. No matter how fancy your AI techniques are, at the end of the day if you have on the order of hundreds of communications, it seems hard to extract data.

I think you really need some sort of interaction with the intelligent creatures - children don’t just quietly listen to adult speech and suddenly understand it. They start talking themselves, you use simple words communicating with them, you do things together while talking, et cetera. All of that is just really hard to do with killer whales.

So most of the species with a similar number of forebrain neurons to humans are aquatically inconvenient. Killer whale, pilot whale, another type of pilot whale, dolphin, human, blue whale, more whales, more whales, more whales, more dolphins, more whales, more whales. Then you have gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and another bunch of just extremely large animals. The Hyacinth macaw might be more promising. Only three billion forebrain neurons to a human’s 20 billion, but at least they are small.

Crows Again

Checking down this list, the smartest animal that actually lives near me is the raven. Basically a big crow - I think crows are similar, Wikipedia just lists ravens but not crows. Around a billion forebrain neurons. Squirrels can get through some complicated obstacle courses and crows are maybe 20 times smarter. I wonder if there’s some sort of clever obstacle course I could set up, have crows do it, and demonstrate they are intelligent.

As I type this, the crows have started to caw outside my window. I like to think they are expressing their support….