Tuesday, November 11

Affection, Attention, and Bananas

"They work for bananas.  They love bananas.  So, they'll work endlessly for a mouthful of banana," added Poling.

The quote is from a Voice of America report, Scientists Using Giant Rats to Diagnose TB.

These giant rats native to Africa aren't run-of-the-mill street rats.  They're known as "pouched" rats, meaning they have pouches in their cheeks to hold food.  So they're more like hamsters than rats.  But rats are a lot smarter than hamsters. In fact, they're smarter than a lot of humans, and their concentrative powers, at least among the giant rats trained as technicians, are greater than for many humans.
The most intense look of concentration I've ever seen was on the face of a giant rat.  The photograph showed the rat -- wearing a straw hat, I might add -- inching its way across a field in which unexploded land mines were buried, in search of the mines.
And no, the rats while big for a rat are too light to trip a mine. The rat was just putting everything it had into its job despite the punishing sun. To return to the VOA report:
[...] APOPO trains sniffer rats to detect explosives and diagnose disease, and in this case, a sniffer is being trained to correctly detect tuberculosis in human sputum samples
Poling is not prepared at this point to say that the pouched rats are better at detecting TB than trained technicians using microscopes.  But he says the animals are a lot quicker.

"They can test hundreds of samples a day," said Poling.  "And we essentially get results immediately.  A microscopist can do 20 to 40 samples a day, so it's very slow for microscopists.  It's also not very accurate.  They miss a lot of positives."
The report was from December 2010. Things have progressed by leaps and bounds since then with the training of rat lab technicians.  From Bec Crew's September 19, 2014 report for Scientific American, These adorable giant African rats detect land mines and TB for a living:
[...] APOPO – which stands for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling in Dutch, or Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development in English – is an organisation that trains and deploys rats, named HeroRATS, for the detection of abandoned land mines and tuberculosis. Founded in 1997 by Belgian rat-enthusiast, Bart Weetjens, APOPO partnered with the Tanzanian People’s Defence Force and the Sokoine University of Agriculture in a city called Morogoro in the southern highlands of Tanzania, where they now maintain their headquarters and training facilities.

Since 2000, they've bred hundreds of trained and accredited rats that have so far found 1,500 buried land mines across an area of 240,000 metres squared in Tanzania, and 6,693 land mines, 26,934 small arms and ammunitions, and 1,087 bombs across 9,898,690 metres squared in Mozambique. They’re also operating in Thailand, Angola, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
A spin-off project that trains tuberculosis-detecting rats has so far produced 54 accredited rats for use in 19 TB clinics in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam. Since 2002, they’ve screened 226,931 samples and identified 5,594 TB patients.
This gives new meaning to the term lab rat.
You'll have to forgive Bec's use of "adorable."  At the time of the writing she was the proud new foster parent of a giant African rat. APOPO has an adoption program, where for about $7.00 a month people can sponsor the rearing and training of a rat techie and follow the rat's education and professional career.  Her baby hadn't been born yet, although she'd already named it, but much of her report is taken up with details on how the rats are trained.

From this, I don't think banana rewards are the entire explanation for the intense concentration the rats seem to bring to their job.  From birth they're given a level of attention and affection by their human trainers that would be the envy of American public school children. Looks like the rats respond in kind when it comes to their work for humans.

As a general observation it's not possible to establish much of an emotional bond between oneself and systems. This I would think can limit a worker's sense of personal responsibility, which in turn can influence the worker's level of concentration. Yet humans depend increasingly on increasingly large and complex systems for survival. It's a spin of the roulette wheel how much concentration the people who work in the systems apply to their jobs. Often this outweighs or cancels out the benefit of a system.