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Great Minds Think Alike

Tal Hartuv - 12 April 2022

There is an old and rather cynical feminist joke that says, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” And Israel being Israel, researchers have embarked on research to train a goldfish to ride a bicycle.

Well, not exactly to ride a bicycle, but to steer a vehicle in the direction the fish wants to swim. It’s not just a fishy idea. Navigation is a critical ability for animal survival. Animals use it to find food and shelter, get out of danger and look for a mate. Given the important role of navigation, researchers wanted to know whether an animal’s ability to do this is dependent on the species or whether they all share that same “drive.”

“Israeli researchers have embarked on research to train a goldfish to steer a vehicle”

Researchers designed a set of wheels under a goldfish tank with a camera that recorded the fish’s movements. Six happy and excited goldfish were taught to navigate the vehicle by earning a reward a of a small food pellet when each one found its way around a small room.

The results were quite astonishing. They showed fish were not just able to operate the vehicle and explore a new environment, but also reach a specific target, regardless of the starting point, and do all of this while avoiding dead-ends.

To make sure the fish wasn’t cheating, the researchers put a visible target on the wall opposite the tank. After a few days of training, the fish was required to find the target. A computer followed the movement of the fish as it learned to successfully drive towards the wall.

In order to further explore our little friends navigational skills, the researchers challenged the fish with several control sessions where they manipulated the environmental settings to explore different skills. The good news is, fish are much smarter than we think. In the beginning, many needed half an hour to find the target but with a little practice they soon could do it in under a minute. Any false targets that were placed by researchers, the fish simply ignored.

“Even a goldfish has the cognitive ability to learn a complex task far from their home environment”

Not only does the study imply that an animal’s navigational ability is universal, it shows that even a goldfish has the cognitive ability to learn a complex task far from their home environment. It’s a bit like being a teenager, leaving home for the first time to explore the big wide world, and much to the parents delight, doesn’t come back home to stay.

Truth be told though, as much as we would like to think so, this idea was not first pioneered by Israel. In 2014, Studio Diip, a design lab from Holland (no less), developed the first contraption which taught a goldfish to drive itself around a room. Although quite a lot may or may not have been learned about fish, the old saying still stands: ‘Great Minds Think Alike.’

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