Originally published here: https://guzey.com/ai/planes-vs-birds/

Note: Parts of this essay were written by GPT-3, so it might contain untrue facts.


Many of my friends are extremely excited by planes, rockets, and helicopters. They keep showing me videos of planes flying at enormous speed, rockets taking off from the ground while creating fiery infernos around them, and of helicopters hovering midair seemingly denying the laws of gravity.

I've been on a plane already, and it was nothing special. It was just a big metal tube with a bunch of people inside. It was loud and it smelled weird and I had to sit in a tiny seat for hours. So what is it that makes planes so special? Is it the fact that they're machine? Is it the fact that they're big? Is it the fact that they cost a lot of money?

Here's the thing: all human-built artificial flight (AF) machines are incredibly specialized and are far away from being able to perform most of the tasks birds -- the only general flight (GF) machines we are aware of -- can perform.

More than 200 years after hot air balloons became operational and more than 100 years after the first planes flew, it's clear that building a GF machine is much harder than anticipated and that we are nowhere close to reaching bird-level abilities.

1. Planes vs eagles

First, take a look at this video of an eagle catching a goat, throwing it off a cliff, and then feasting on it:

I haven't ever seen a plane capable of catching a live animal and deliberately throwing it off a cliff. Not in 1922, not in 2022. Not even a tech demo. Such a feat vastly exceeds the abilities of any planes we have built, however fast they can fly.

2. Planes vs cuckoos

Second, let's watch this video of a cuckoo chick ejecting the eggs of its competitors out of a nest:

You could say that this ability has nothing to do flight but, again, this misses the forest for the trees. Building a GF machine is not about Goodharting random "flight" benchmarks by flying high and fast, it's about real-world performance on tasks GF machines created by nature are capable of. And, however impressive planes are, as soon as we try to see how well they perform in the real-world, they can't even match a cuckoo chick.

3. Planes vs a hummingbirds

Third and final example. Take a look at the hummingbird's amazing ability to maintain stability in the harshest aerial conditions:

Take any plane we have built and it stands no chance of survival placed in anything even close to these kinds of conditions, while a tiny-yet-mighty hummingbird doesn't break a sweat navigating essentially a tornado.

Future of bird jobs: no plane danger

Birds can flap their wings up to three times per second, whereas the fastest human-made aircraft only flaps its wings at 0.3 times per second. Birds can fly for long periods of time, whereas airplanes need to refuel regularly. Birds use orders of magnitude less energy to lift the same amount of mass in the air, compared to planes.

Planes, rockets, and helicopters are (optimistically) decades away from being able to carry out most of the tasks birds are capable of. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, most bird jobs such as carrying messages (pigeons), carrying cargo (pigeons), hunting (hawks), and others, will remain safe from being displaced by human-built AF machines.

Even if planes start to approach birds in some of their abilities, birds will be able to simply move towards performing other jobs. For example, planes can't navigate by themselves. So perhaps they will carry messages in simple conditions or to short distances, while pigeons will move towards specializing in complex message carrying or will learn to supervize plane routing, e.g. by piloting planes or by flying alongside and course-correcting them.

Birds can further make themselves safe from future job displacement by investing in their children's education, ensuring their long-term employability in the face of the rise of AF machines.


At the end of the day, I just don't see how human-built AF machines we are building right now could fundamentally change the way wars are fought, business and travel are conducted, or how they would allow us to do anything even close to true spaceflight (if you want to venture into the true lunatic-territory).

After all, if human-built AF machines are unable to match the abilities of a bird toddler, how could they possibly displace most bird jobs?

New Comment
13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I must disagree.  I roasted a large plane for Thanksgiving yesterday and it was incomparable to a bird.  For tips on brining your plane, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_Airways_Flight_1549

A fun thing about example 1. is that we can totally imagine an AF System that could drag a goat off a cliff and eat it (put it in a bioreactor which it uses to charge its battery), it's just that no one would make that, because it wouldn't make sense. Artificial systems use 'cheats' like solar power or hydrocarbons because the cheats are better. There may never be an era or a use case where it makes sense to 'stop cheating'.

A weird but important example is that you might not ever see certain (sub-pivotal) demonstrations of strength from most AGI researcher institutions, not because they couldn't make those things, but because doing so would cause them to be nationalized as a defense project.

I struggled at first to see the analogy being made to AI here. In case it helps others, here is my interpretation:

  • Near-future (or current ?) LLMs are the planes here, humans are the birds.
  • These LLMs will soon be able to perform many of the most important cognitive functions that humans can do. In the analogy, these are the flying-related functions that planes perform.
  • As with current LLMs, there will always be certain tasks that humans are better at, such as motor control or humor. That's because humans are highly specialized for certain tasks that aren't actually necessary for most capabilities. 
  • We shouldn't conclude from the fact that birds can do things that planes can't, that we haven't "solved flying." Similarly, just because LLMs can't do everything humans can , that doesn't mean we haven't "solved intelligence."

I like that this post can be read as in both jest and earnestness and in both readings it contains much Truth and Wisdom. =)

And physicist have proven that bumblebee wings don't work, so we know that crazy contraption of "drones" will remain a fiction.

I love that bees just lift their fat little bodies off the ground and don't care what scientists think.

Not sure if that was a continuation of the satire, but the question interested me so in case anyone else wants to know, here's an article on the origins of that myth: https://www.animal-dynamics.com/the-bumblebee-flight-myth/

I was making reference to the opening lines of Bee Movie, which were an old meme.

Shouldn't you have waited for April's Fool for this?


As of all things transportation related, it's all about power to weight ratio. Tanks have horrible power to weight ratio, but they are very tough. Planes are a bit more fragile, and birds are even more fragile. Birds also have the added benefit of biological healing from physical wear and tear. Evolution is just a form of engineering.

Birds also didn't need a highly complex language to describe gravity and its effects on the natural world in order to work with this technology.

“He [Arthur Dent] learned to communicate with birds and discovered their conversation was fantastically boring. It was all to do with windspeed, wingspans, power-to-weight ratios and a fair bit about berries.”.  Douglas Adams; So long and thanks for all the fish.