Training Crows to Do What Humans Can’t: Pick up Their Cigarette Butts

It’s no secret that cigarette butts littering city streets are a big problem. Aside from the normal concerns that are common to all trash…

Cameron Coward
2 years agoSustainability

It’s no secret that cigarette butts littering city streets are a big problem. Aside from the normal concerns that are common to all trash: aesthetics, clogging of storm drains, labor for cleanup, etc., cigarette butts also pollute the environment with all that nasty stuff that coats smokers’ lungs. Nicotine and other carcinogens can seep into the water table, and potentially poison plant and animal life.

Fines for littering of cigarette butts, bans on public smoking, and even proposed bans on cigarettes altogether have had little effect on curtailing the problem. Some technological solutions have been researched, like robotic sweepers or vacuums, but they are expensive and impractical (for a variety of reasons). A new solution, which trains crows to pick up cigarette butts, may actually be a lot less farfetched than it sounds at first.

Crowbar, a concept by Crowded Cities, is designed to train crows to deliver cigarette butts in exchange for peanuts. Industrial designers Ruben van der Vleuten and Bob Spikman, the founders of Crowded Cities, were inspired by Joshua Klein’s Crow Box, a similar system which rewards the crows for depositing change they find on the ground. Both systems work because crows are extremely intelligent birds, and are capable of both the dexterity required and of understanding the task.

The training process for the birds is pretty straightforward, and most of it can even be handled automatically by the Crowbar. The crows are simply taught that if they find a cigarette butt and put it into the machine, they will be rewarded with a tasty peanut. While the system hasn’t yet been implemented, it looks very promising and has even won the Dutch Accenture Innovation Award in the Perfect Cities category.

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