The iPad as a tool of orangutan liberation

The iPad as a tool of orangutan liberation

Churning through the World Wide Web you come across tons of "cute iPad" stories -- this one from the Associated Press, with a very slight twist on a story that actually surfaced in January: apes using iPads.

MORE: Inside Apple's iPad world-wide ubiquity

Miami's Jungle Island zoo is using iPads with six orangutans as part of a "mental stimulus program" that, based on the AP account (here via The Washington Post), seems to lack anything approaching a rigorous scientific basis.

A separate, and better known, program was launched last year by Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach, who told the AP reporter that he's building an "Apps For Apes" program with old, donated iPads. That project, covered by Scientific American in January launched with the Milwaukee County Zoo and now includes others zoos though not Jungle World.

The Jungle World apes, AP assures us, "apparently are just like people when it comes to technology." The young'uns love it and the troglodyte oldsters are indifferent.

The program is the brainchild of Jungle Island's Linda Jacobs, who started the iApe program last summer "based on the suggestion of someone who had used the devices with dolphins." (In the interests of multi-species diversity, presumably the dolphin project will be extended from mammals to fish, perhaps spurring Apple to finally bring to iDevices such waterproofing technologies as HzO's WaterBlock.)

Jacobs chose an app that was originally designed for humans with autism. Among other things, the apps displays pictures of various objects. The trainer then names aloud one of the objects, and the orangutan presses the corresponding button. That sounds rather, well, tame. Orangutan Outreach lets the apes use simple games and fingerpainting app, though there are more advanced games available, like "Monkey Cannon." Neither program lets the apes actually hold the tablet: they reach through their cage to touch the screen as a keeper holds it.

According to the AP story: "Keepers have long used sign language to communicate with them. Using their hands, the orangutans can respond to simple questions, identify objects and express their wants or needs. The apes can also identify body parts, helping the trainers care for them and even give them shots."

It's not clear why the apes can point to a body part on the iPad but not on themselves, or how they're actually expressing their "wants." But Linda Jacobs clearly sees the iPad as a tool of orangutan liberation.

"They are sort of trapped in those bodies," Jacobs said. "They have the intelligence that they need to communicate, but they don't have the right equipment, because they don't have voice boxes or vocal chords. So this gives them a way to let us know what they know, what they are capable of, what they would like to have."

Like, say, a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred, with a twist. Or perhaps not. 

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.


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