See Inside August/September 2006

Champ Chimp

A chimpanzee's development of number skills sheds some light on our own

WHEN AI PRESSES the touch-sensitive computer screen, the Arabic numerals 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 pop up in random order. She correctly taps the numbers in ascending order, earning a handful of raisins as a reward. Ai, a chimpanzee, also reveals a lightning-fast short-term memory for numbers. When white boxes mask the numerals right after each is displayed, she still strikes the boxes accurately—unlike some of the human volunteers who take the test.

Ai's videotaped demonstration, at a recent conference, is the culmination of two decades of work by Japanese researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University. Matsuzawa has been training and observing Ai since 1978. Ai proved to be a star pupil, and she and Matsuzawa get together almost daily for a mixture of play and research. The 30-year-old chimp participates enthusiastically—as does her six-year-old son, Ayumu.

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