Before humans domesticated plants, humans used and bred working animals; dogs to hunt and herd; horses, camels, cattle, and elephants as beasts of burden. Machines have mostly replaced the need for working animals, but some specialized working animals persist in the modern world. While a few specially trained dogs and monkeys perform household tasks for the blind and disabled, the cognitive abilities of animals remain largely unexploited.
Although we think of primates as our intellectual inferiors, they can perform better at some cognitive tasks than humans. Japanese researchers have demonstrated that chimpanzee using touchscreens have a greater working memory than humans. More recently, French researchers have shown that baboons can be trained to recognize letters and distinguish words from gibberish. Rapid touchscreen use and word recognition combined with the ability to recognize key features in complex pictures should allow primates to rapidly solve CAPTCHA.
Visual CAPTCHA, Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, relies on the human ability to recognize warped text that computer Optical Character Recognition programs cannot. PCR, Primate Character Recognition, could replace the formerly human task of identifying difficult to read text for library digitization, mail sorting, check reading, and inventory.
Primates as young as five years could be used in PCR allowing for the rapid production of a trained workforce. Primates could be forced to work 12 hour days, eat specially formulated company food, and sleep in crowded dormitories without personal belongings or privacy; conditions that no human worker would be subjected to. Likewise, underperforming, old, or violent primates could be harvested for meat or other useful products; another practice that would be unthinkable in humans.
While the exploitation of working animals was pivotal in the rise of man, some argue against the exploitation of primates for human gain. Habitat destruction through logging, mining, and expanding agricultural land has already impacted some primate populations. As global human population continues to increase, large captive primate populations may be necessary to prevent the loss of humanity’s closest relatives. Perhaps through domestication, humanity can take on its burden to provide food, shelter, and medical care for displaced primates.