Alex (Avian Language EXperiment) was the name of an animal psychology experiment that ran for 30 years starting from 1977. The experiment was designed to see if birds could undertake complex problem solving and learn languages like primates. For this, Dr Irene Pepperberg bough an African grey parrot, named him Alex and started teaching him how to speak. Before Alex, scientists believed that animals needed a large enough brain like a primate to handle the complex problems related to language. But Alex proved otherwise.
Before Dr Pepperberg, scientists failed to establish any two-way communication with parrots. She used a new training technique called the model/rival technique, where two trainers act in front of the parrot to teach it things. The method is as follows. One trainer (the rival) shows the other trainer the desired student behaviour they want the parrot to learn. The other trainer then compliments the trainer and shows attention. The parrot sees that the behaviour gets the trainer’s attention and learns it to compete with the rival. This technique was extremely successful and Alex began picking up words at a very fast rate (technically it was more of a two-way communications code than “language”).
Once communication was possible, Dr Pepperberg taught Alex many different concepts. Over the course of his life, Alex learnt 150 words, how to differentiate between seven colours and five shapes and also understood the concept of numbers and sizes. If you showed Alex two objects, he could answer many questions regarding one object (thus showing that his response was not a conditioned one). For example, if you showed him a small blue key and a large green key, he could answer what colour the larger key was, or which one was the green key. Furthermore, if a plate full of objects of different colours and shapes was presented to him, he could correctly count how many green blocks (or any other shape or colour) there was among the objects. The important point here is that he could pick out just the green blocks, excluding green balls or blue blocks from his answers (showing he fully understood the question and could attribute more than one characteristic to one object). He knew how to express himself, such as saying “Wanna go back” when he was tired, and would give playful, incorrect answers when bored of the repetitious experiments. According to Dr Pepperberg, Alex had the intelligence equal to a dolphin, a great ape or a five year-old child. He also knew how to attain knowledge by asking questions, such as when he asked what colour he was to learn the word “grey”.
Alex, who told us so much about the intelligence of a parrot, unfortunately died in 2007. The night before he died, he said the following last words to Dr Pepperberg: “You be good. I love you”.