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Higher Primates Can Program After VB.NET Training
Smarter Software Leads to ‘Primate Programming’ Research

SAN DIEGO, CA — Here by the San Diego zoo, experiments last month with baboons have proved that higher primates can perform software testing, traverse complex menus, and code simple XML schemas. The finding have implications for the entire software industry, with some scientists predicting routine programming such as maintenance and report writing will be performed by teams of primates within 10 years.  McAuliffe’s work builds on research conducted in 2003 at several research universities. This university research supports the view that higher primates can learn language and perform complex cognitive tasks.

Researcher Dr. James McAuliffe found that baboons could use and test software, and perform simple programming tasks. The results were published recently in the Journal of American Zoology.

Dr. James McAuliffe of the Stamford School of Zoology performoed a series of experiments on the baboons using laptop computers. What he discovered was amazing. His findings were reported in the Journal of American Zoology this month.

“Baboons and chimpanzees can use computers, do software testing, and even program,” explained Dr. McAuliffe. But they had some problems handling simple menu navigation.“Higher primates are very intelligent, but we found that they had problems with deeply nested menus. We found that these animals had trouble with multi-way branches beyond 2 levels. At first, these primates simply could not repeat a multi-way menu navigation.” “However, when male baboons were shown multi-way branches leading to certain GIF, JPG and BMP images of interest, we found the male animals could quickly navigate and recall up to seven levels of deep menu nesting, with each level containing up to 27 menu items. “

According to McAuliffe, “that’s about 35 million possible paths. Clearly, the experimental menu navigation results, if repeatable, cannot be random.”

Humans and higher primates share approximately 97% of their DNA in common. Recent research in primate programming suggests computing is a task that most higher primates can easily perform. Visual Basic 6.0 ™ was the preferred IDE for the majority of experiment primate subjects.

After simple training in Windows® menu navigation, McAuliffe presented the baboons with modern development tools. Predictably, they were baffled by anything to do with modern Java IDEs such as SunONE®, Visual Age® and Jbuilder®. None of the animals understood the Java programming language, even the ‘alpha’ animals.

However, most subjects immediately understood Visual Basic 3.0, and even displayed some comprehension of the VB3 debugger and simple VB data types. Most subjects could change properties of custom controls in the Properties window, and displayed some understanding of advanced concepts such as read-only properties. Some researchers observing the experiments commented that Visual  Basic 3.0 was “way too easy for these baboons” to learn, and pushed for more Java testing.  These researchers, who spoke anonymously, wanted to test the limits of what the subjects could understand and learn about software development tasks.

Test subjects with the best results were baboons and bonobo apes. Both primate species demonstrated stressful behaviors when presented with Java tools and utilities.

McAuliffe discovered the subject baboon behaviour did not include the sharing of source code. In fact, many subjects were territorial,  in some cases blocking the progress of other animals, with aggressive and subtle passive-aggressive behaviors. Males who could manipulate the laptop keyboard and traverse complex, multi-way menus gained an immediate increase in social status within the group. This led to some social friction, as more knowledgeable males enjoyed higher social status at the expense of then-alpha, more physical males. None of the baboons, regardless of rank, could perform an error-free compile or handle Windows registry tasks.

Research by scientists suggests that higher primates represent certain kinds of knowledge internally by discrete symbol structures, called scripts. This research tends to support the hypothesis that primates can program. Other scientific research also supports the idea that primates may be used for routine programming, such as maintenance and report writing, within 10 years.
The implications of McAuliffe’s work has wide scope, and may effect software developer education, open source programming, H1-B visas, and commercial software testing. The research is already making waves in the business community. Some early adopters-- and even some venture capitalists-- are funding business models based on primate programming. It remains to be seen how effective the exploitation of this research will be in the marketplace.

Monkey see, monkey do.

Future experiments are scheduled to test distributed primate programming and report writing tasks. The results will be published in the Journal of American Zoology in October of 2003.


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