MIT Professor Training Parrot to Surf the Internet Fighting Bird's Boredom the Goal

Article excerpt

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- 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 important, 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. …