Decrypted on Smash Notes

Why Silicon Valley Is Hiring Bird Experts


A few years ago, reporter Sarah McBride noticed that a top engineer at Twitter was also an expert on the brains of birds. Then, more and more, she started seeing that many top tech companies have bird brain experts in their highest ranks⁠—that includes Apple, Google, Intel and a secretive startup founded by Elon Musk. This week on Decrypted, Sarah and fellow reporter Ashlee Vance set out to understand why Silicon Valley is so interested in avian minds, and what they could tell us about tech’s ability to influence our own.

Episode notes last updated on August 07, 2019 04:26


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Smash Notes summary for this episode

What is a Zebra Finch?

"The zebra finch is the most common estrildid finch of Central Australia and ranges over most of the continent, avoiding only the cool moist south and some areas of the tropical far north." - According to Zebra Finch description on Wikipedia.

What question prompted Tim, Boston University professor, with exploring the correlation between avian minds and human minds ?

At the core of his exploration, he wanted to explore why a task seemed so easy for a child, but was difficult for a robot.

What is one of the key focuses of Tim's studies ?

He has honed in on why zebra finches learn to sing. It is a means to an end as he seeks ways to ultimately gain a better understanding of how the human brain functions.

Why do researchers study how birds learn to sign?

This knowledge can provide information as to how humans learn to sing

Why is the tech industry so interested in research related to bird brain function ?

Scientists working on animals studies have a lot of interesting data, and tech companies love access to data. Additionally, the research provides useful insights into artificial intelligence.

Why are researchers studying animal and not human brains?

Human brains are too complicated to study, nevermind the ethical implications of doing it, while animal brains a lot simpler and we have set principles and technologies to study them.

How is neuroscience beginning to inform how tech companies develop artificial intelligence systems ?

Many neuroscientists who spent most of their careers in academia are now being snatched up by companies in Silicon Valley.

Why does Amir Khosrowshahi, Vice President and CTO of AI at Intel invest so much time in studying neuroscience?

Amir Khosrowshahi is a computational neuroscientist by training, and he says that a lot of AI technologies can benefit from learning how humans perform tasks that computers don't yet know how to do well.

Don't we know everything there is to know about the birds already?

The birds, among other animals and simple organisms that neuroscientists study for clues, exhibit complex behaviours that we still don't know how to simulate.

When do years of studying birds finally pay off?

Gadget, medicine, healthcare, brain control ... A lot of fields we experience every day are already using science that's come out of studying birds.

What is Elon Musk hoping to get from Neuralink?

Neuralink could enable people to have a superhuman cognition, where's one could download an entire library into their brain, or learn a language in an instant.

Does society already see influences of the research conducted by bird experts?

Voice recognition and continuous improvement in audio quality are related to this research. Researchers note, though, that this is just the beginning.