What is “Intelligence” ?

Some good posts are popping up over the the Singularity Institute blog, though the discussions have been taking that odd “hostile academic” tone you often find from PhD wannabes who spend way too much time learning how to reference obvious things in obscure ways.

Michael Anissimov asked over there “What is Intelligence” and offered up a definition that could apply to human as well as artificial intelligence.    

I would suggest that intelligence is overrated as part of our evolutionarily designed, self-absorbed human nature, and in fact is best studied as separate from the states of “consciousness” and “self awareness” that are harder to define.    I think computers – and even a simple calculator – have degrees of intelligence but they do not have consciousness or self awareness.    It is these last two things that make humans think we are so very special.    I’d say consciousness is neat but probably a simpler thing than we like to …. um … think about.

Over there I wrote this in response to Michael’s post:

My working hypothesis about “intelligence” is that it is best viewed and defined in ways that separate it from “consciousness”.  I’d say intelligence is best defined such that it can exist without consciousness or self-awareness.   Thus I’d refer to a computer chess program as intelligent, but not conscious or self aware. 

I would suggest that intelligence is a prerequisite for consciousness which is a prerequisite for self-awareness, but separating these three things seems to avoid some of the difficulties of explanations that get bogged down as we try to develop models of animal and non-animal intelligence.  Also, I think this will describe the development curve of AIs which are already “intelligent”, but none are yet “conscious” or “self aware”.   I think consciousness may turn out to be simply a *massive number* of  interconnections carrying on intelligent internal conversations within a system – human or AI.

A stumbling block I find very interesting is the absurd notion that human intelligence is fundamentally or qualitatively different from other animal intelligences.   Although only a few other species appear to have self-awareness, there are many other “conscious” species and millions of “intelligent” species


A good question about intelligence is “WHY is intelligence”.   The obvious answer is evolutionary adaptivity, which in turn helps explain why our brains are so good at some things and so bad at others.  e.g. Human survival was more a function of short term planning rather than long term planning, so as you’d expect we are pretty good short term planners (“Let’s eat!”  “Let’s make a baby!”  “Look out for that car!) and pretty bad long term planners (Let’s address Social Security shortfalls!, “Let’s fix Iraq!)

22 thoughts on “What is “Intelligence” ?

  1. Intelligence?
    Scientists sometimes refer to the “least intelligent act” by this they mean the least act which you will consider demonstrates intelligence. If your answer is the use of a tool, then your are including sea otters, gulls, ants, etc.

    A computer can be given goal directed behavior but it may not be able to develop it on its own. Massively parallel connections may well bring us some degree of cooperative and purposeful behavior. Even vote pooling among autonymous agents can demonstrate intelligent behavior.

  2. Human “intelligence” often seems purely quantitative—how well can one process integrals or something, but I suggest authentic intelligence includes quantitative skills as well as verbal and analytical skills, and perhaps some type of “aesthetic” awareness. Some people are better at math than say with french: nonetheless, mastery of french as a 2nd language may be in ways as difficult as mastery of integral calculus. Computer programs don’t really have intelligence, which seems to depend on a type of self-directed behavior, or intention. Complexity does not equal intelligence, though might be a sign of it: the intelligence of the person who coded the program etc.

    One implication of thinking about intelligence, and assessing human-intelligence, relates to shall we say meritocracy: if Rosario can write java code or do integral calculus as well as say Steve Jobs, why doesn’t she earn as much money, or even close to as much? Merely because of how free-market economics plays out, it seems. Even Adam Smith believed market transactions should be conducted with the public Good in mind, and aim for a certain equilibrium not only of supply/demand but income, property, assets, etc. So-called progressives themselves overlook that meritocratic principle, at least until a Hugo Chavez or VI Lenin shows up with an army to remind them of it. Maybe instead of reading Al Gore Jr’s pop-progressivism, some people might take a look at VI Lenin, at least to be aware of what the non-corporate Enemy thinks……….

  3. vote pooling among autonymous agents can demonstrate intelligent behavior

    This is a really interesting point that leads me to speculate about “collective” intelligence. Could you get a conscious, thinking being that was composed of a bunch of processes that – by themselves – were not considered intelligent or conscious?

    I’m guessing yes, and that an example of this is right in our mirrors in the morning.

    Not so much in the evening though.

  4. Even Adam Smith believed market transactions should be conducted with the public Good in mind, and aim for a certain equilibrium not only of supply/demand but income, property, assets, etc

    Excellent point, though mostly forgotten these days by Neocos and liberals alike. The founders … are pissed!

  5. perhaps some type of “aesthetic” awareness

    I think a big stumbling block is the difficulty we have as sentient beings separating the “necessary” conditions for sentience from our own conditions. It may not even be possible to do it and I think brain researcher Penrose has concerns along these lines – he’s skeptical that non-human intelligence can even become conscious.

    I prefer the idea that our consciousness and intellect are not nearly as “amazing” as they seem, rather that consciousness and/or “sentience” is the product of *massive* amounts of processing via brain synaptic firings of variable strengths in the large number of redundant neocortical columns that make up our cerebrum, combined with a pretty darn modest amount of intelligent processing in various brain regions.

    But then, I’m just meat. But I’m THINKING meat! Hmmmm – DINNER TIME!

  6. Could you get a conscious, thinking being that was composed of a bunch of processes that – by themselves – were not considered intelligent or conscious?

    The multiplicity of “I”s phenomenon. What we think of as a single consciousness, the being referred to as “I”, is really just the I of the moment. I like to think of my “I”s as a population in need of a government. The rabble can choose various models, and depending on which speak loudest and most forcefully I can be a confused but noble democracy, a foolhardy totalitarian regime, pure anarchy (usually when the intoxicants are in command) or any of countless poorly understood proto-states.

  7. I prefer the idea that our consciousness and intellect are not nearly as “amazing” as they seem…

    You mean the intelligent designer was not the sharpest tool in the shed? There’s a dangerous road to go down. OK, I’m game.

  8. But then, I’m just meat. But I’m THINKING meat! Hmmmm – DINNER TIME!

    That’s what neurology seems to suggest: yet human-thinking appears rather anomalous. No baboon has even the double-digit IQ required to pen “An Inconvenient Bark.” Meat that Thinks is not just meat. I agree that the consciousness-fetish (or creationist views) can become extreme, but I hesitate to accept a completely deterministic, Skinnerian view of thinking: and most skeptics or atheists do as well, especially in regards to punishment-related concerns. It’s hard to accept that a Hitler or Stalin or Tipper Gore are just badly-conditioned monkeys, isn’t it??: we have an idea of Evilness (even a meme, perhaps), and humans who meet the Evil criteria fit in that category of Evilness. For the strict determinist, “Evil” has no meaning, it seems, or is relative and site-specific.

    That doesn’t imply some theological or Cartesian ghost, but most sane humans do operate with that idea of objective morality, I believe, and that seems to depend on a view of mind which is not just “meat”. When Kossacks chant “Bush is Satan!” they aren’t just saying, “Bush is Satan for me, but not for you!” are they? Or are they saying “We have been conditioned to accept Bush is Satan, but you may not have!!!”?? Nyet.

  9. most sane humans do operate with that idea of objective morality, I believe, and that seems to depend on a view of mind which is not just “meat”.

    I just read Francis Collins book “The Language of God and he makes the same point that morality has objective roots, but I think morality is very subjective, though still very important. You are right that most people think it’s objective, but I’d say they are …. wrong! Supporting this is the challenge that some moral schemas are fundamentally incompatible. Protestant morality is not compatible with Catholic morality on several topics, let alone Christianity with Islam or Judaism. Who’s right?

  10. The point was more anthropological in a sense, and intended to show that ethics and values follow from a certain view of mind/thinking. If humans are just meat–primates, however sophisticated–then a certain amoralism if not nihilism seems to follow (and there were Nazi atheists, of course), though I grant amorality doesn’t have to follow from materialist views (many religious people seem to think so). The death of a monkey doesn’t seem quite as significant as like the death of, er, Caesar.

    Shifting from Mind to ethics (related, of course): Humans, societies and religous tradition do seem to make use of something we might call “ethics” (better than morality). It’s easy for some Richard Dawkins– to come along and say oh that’s all superstitious nonsense, we are all primates, or ala Hume to say there are no necessary arguments for any objective values, etc. but the more profound view (and even Marx sort of agrees) is to see how the values (or ethics-memes, if you will) function, even what the religious codes do (even if we disagree with say monotheism in principle). I will admit that I generally agree with Dawkins’ arguments, but then one might say: is religion purely about argument, justification, evidence as like a sociology essay is? Not really. Not at all. Bach fugues aren’t syllogisms, or biological taxonomy, or some input-output model. There are some grounds to be feared of the British–or Tory– sort of atheist-materialist anyway (or his American cousins). Even SJ Gould thought so.

  11. The old Chomsky-Skinner debate sort of brought these issues out even more effectively than Dawkins’ somewhat crude writing: and it’s a rather ancient issue, regarding “innateness”. The behaviorists and empiricists (an Dawkins in that tradition) indeed may have superior arguments in terms of showing that a God or soul or objective morality cannot be proven: but that is merely the tip of the iceberg for some people. Similarly, Betrand Russell (Dawkins sort of a reiteration of Russell–and Russell) was fond of calling up jesuit priests or other religious people and humiliating them on the BBC 70 years or so ago: he demolished all their arguments. Yet in some sense may have lost.

    That something is not proven does not mean that people won’t believe in it, or even have zealous faith that it does exist: like with global warming. Many Goreans (especially ones who have not bothered to read the GW skeptics) take a leap of faith nearly as large as do some biblethumpers. Reality–whether political, economic, or psychological— is mostly a matter of probabilities, inferences, contingencies: not some nice truth-functional model or pure Newtonian Ordnung. Even Niels Bohr showed that.

  12. Several good points above horatiox, and I certainly agree that reality is best defined/ viewed as a matter of probabilities. Can we be certain of *anything*. Basically I think I agree with Descartes – you can be sure of existence, but for other ideas you can just think they are “likely” or not.

  13. Descartes’ arguments I can sort of respect–though when in more cynical frame of mind, do not completely agree to.
    But compared to modern-day fundies and religious zealots, Descartes seems like an intellectual god.

    Alas, the sort of precise argumentation valued by Descartes is not shared by many in Blogland, on either right or left. In fact visits to New Worlds will demonstrate how bloggers who never read a word of Descartes operate: not about say logic, whether inductive or deductive, or even about non-emotional scientific writing: it’s all about deception, insults, logical fallacies, lightweight ID politics, kitsch. AS with the thread on Gore. Who cares what Dr. Crichton said? he’s a nazi (or at least the NW comrades repeat “Crichton is a nazi” enough times, and, poof, he is).

    New Worlds: sort of like cyber-LDSchurch.com: Mormon stoners, in action! (and indeed Mr. Max allows Mormon-related material–OS Card one NW fave). When Byronia starts rallying for Mitt Romney, then we do somethin’.

  14. Horatiox I agree that blogs in many ways have managed to “dumb down” the debates, or turn them very acrimonious, rather than shed a lot of light. However on balance I think have a blogOsphere is much better than not, and I’m going to remain optimistic (perhaps naively?) that over time we’ll see blogs rise to the challenge of enlightening people rather than exploiting our sad human intellectual defects.

    As for me, I’m still counting the Polar Bear drownings and trying to make sense of it..

  15. I was reading Joel on Software the other day when he made the case for having no comments on blogs. He cited some examples of threads that degenerate rapidly into name calling and vitriol having nothing to do with the original post (I could send him a few).

    He says it makes more sense to have the members of the community state their viewpoints on their own blogs and leave it at that. To me this conjures up a Dr. Seuss-like image of a bunch of blowhards each standing on their own soapbox separated by miles of devastation shouting their brains out.

    Comment threads are definitely a challenge. I would say they are more likely than not to end up being counterproductive to the earnest, cogent argument presented in the parent post. Still, it’s a great way for ideas to be tested and for feedback to be presented to the author in almost real-time. The challenge is to find a middle ground where opponents aren’t screaming at each other and it’s not just a happy, joyful echo chamber either. From my experience, it requires courage and the willingness to engage respectfully with those holding opposing viewpoints. When it works it can be enriching to our personalities and insightful for our understanding of the world around us.

  16. Speaking of comment threads, I just ran across one that ties in with the subject of this post and exhibits a classic pattern in a fairly brief span of comments. The post is about the shocking comments recently made by Nobel laureate James Watson that elicited immediate cries of racism; his contention that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites. The comment thread had the obligatory cries of shame! shame!, followed by a couple of opposing points of view defending him for speaking the truth, followed by more people jumping on those in the second camp. Finally, a thoughtful response was voiced by one “Izzy” which sheds some genuine insight on the subject:

    I understand the rush to arms over what sounds like racist BS, but it also concerns me somewhat that an idea like that can not even be thought of in the scientific community.

    Of course, one must realize that intelligence is ridiculously hard to quantify…certainly in one general number. What IS intelligence? Are there different kinds of it? How do you determine which kinds are more valuable than others? Is intelligence wholly biological? Does analytical skill develop over ones lifetime like a muscle that has to be flexed?

    Questions like these and more make it very difficult to explore intelligence and make these kinds of comparisons between vastly different environments and cultures with vastly different priorities quite difficult if not altogether impossible.

    But even as we remain guarded against the debate being twisted by those with an agenda of racial oppression, don’t we have to be open somewhat to the idea that just as evolution has produced a variety of external physical characteristics in different regions, it could have also produced a variety of different internal characteristics?

    I think Izzy is obviously right that different kinds of humans are different inside- we’re not really created equal at all. Still, it’s very difficult to say this group is smarter than that group. Environmental factors are extremely important and influential. Watson’s comments sound to me like more elitism than racism in that he takes credit for whites’ superior environment as implicit evidence to claim simplistically that they are smarter. Still it was a dumb thing to say. If I make it to 79 I’ll try not to be such a butthead.

  17. Comment threads are definitely a challenge. I would say they are more likely than not to end up being counterproductive to the earnest, cogent argument presented in the parent post.

    More of your usual manipulation, Max. Note your own recent thread on Gore and the peace prize. What was the “cogent argument”? You started by more or less assuming that Gore’s GW claims are accurate and that he deserved the prize (or if not accurate, somehow still meaningful). That’s not even an argument, but an assertion, a declaration–nearly a statement of faith. You could have sort of fielded responses on what NW readers thought of the Peace prize: that would have been a bit more democratic (and intelligent) than simply assuming everyone wants to high-five AL Jr.

    Then a poster merely suggested that there were skeptics (of various political viewpoints) who question some of the claims of Gore–or rather, of the IPCC, since Gore is not really qualified to offer statements on the science. The poster also questioned what Gore’s GW writing had to do with peace, and whether Gore’s own political history should have been considered. At that point, insinuations were made: anyone who questions Gore’s prize and/or GW or refers to like a Crichton is a rightist, a Foxnews fan, loves war, voted for Bush etc.

    If you valued cogent argument, you would have protested the ID politics and ad homs on your own thread, moderated them (even if “PC”) and taken the time to show why a Crichton is mistaken (or other skeptics–Rancourt, Hug, Glassman, the Counterpunch writers, etc.). Of course that would take some legwork and a bit of scholarship, and letting the Gore pep rally continue was much easier.

    Blogs can work, but the writing tends to go in two general directions, I believe: either formal, a bit dry and academic (and possibly obscure), or gonzo, conversational, non-academic and often rude or obscene. The gonzo sites might be phunn but are somewhat trivial. Mixing the two leads to confusion, usually.

  18. Ok, a quick rejoinder, then off to bed. The irony of the Gore thread on New Worlds (thanks for the boodles of publicity BTW) is that it was meant to be a simple congratulations to Al for what I thought would be generally received as a well deserved honor. There was no “cogent argument” in this case. Sometimes I have a point, sometimes I’m just expressing myself. This was a case of the latter.

    It’s not quite true that I failed to moderate the blogstorm that followed. I did filter out several posts from the thread that seemed to be centered on an irrational hatred of the man I’d congratulated. When a poster did come along with politely stated reservations about Gore’s prize (the author of this very blog) his arguments were published and treated with growing respect. In the end, I felt that the flow of comments had presented an interesting and enlightening look at the variance of viewpoints on a contentious subject without dehumanizing the participants in the exchange.

  19. Intelligence is a property of mind that encompasses many related abilities, such as the capacities to reason, to plan, to solve problems..

    Its important – as it helps to react..

  20. You’re mistaken there, and not using words carefully. It wasn’t about the “man,” or hate: it was about pointing out all the shortcomings of An Inconvenient Truth, and alluding to some writers and scientists opposed to GW claims, at least as Gore presented them. Fact-based, nothing to do with attacking his person–except in terms of the hypocrisy of giving an award to someone with a rather non-peaceful (and not-so-green) political history. More like amused skepticism. Though if you were a relative of some of the 1000s of serbs killed or an iraqi who witnessed the bombings under Clinton/Gore you might have some hatred–rational hatred.

  21. Hey, this “intelligence” post sure is showing some signs of life. Thanks Max and Horatiox for many interesting points here.

    have the members of the community state their viewpoints on their own blogs and leave it at that. To me this conjures up a Dr. Seuss-like image of a bunch of blowhards each standing on their own soapbox

    Max I agree with you that a blog without comments is at best an island, usually outside of the ocean of collective wisdom (and collective stupidity), that makes earth a fun planet. Ideally in my view everybody “playing” would have blogs and a pingback-like system would make it easier to surf back and forth and participate at several blogs at once.

    As this blog grew in readership and I posted here a lot more I stopped being active at other blogs as a commenter. They lost my …um…wise comments and I lost those communities. I still surf around, but frankly I’m pissed that several of the “A list” folks who have benefitted very disproportionately from Google’s current ranking (which favors old content) primarily hype each other or their own projects. I’ve been helping their unjust consolidation of power by commenting actively, and I’m tired of the unilateral relationship. (Big exceptions to this are Scoble and Zawodny, both old bloggers who participate very actively regardless of commercial interests).
    TechMeme is the best solution so far to the problem of having a debate that focuses on a key topic and then presents links to other views about it, but everybody playing at TechMeme needs to have their own blog and have some credibility in Tech, so it is a “small” system compared to the global blogosphere.
    I think the ideal environment is still a few software generations away, but it will have these characteristics:

    * Allow spirited discussions.
    * Allow community moderation? Hmm – a slippppery slope.
    * Spread the news around the web, so it’s easier to find relevance. Google blog search and technorati are great for this, neither are integrated well with core search.
    * Elevate comments to higher status. In this thread Max and Horatiox have posted comments worthy of posts – it would be neat to be able to automatically spin off these good comments as their own posts, and then take it from there as you do in a real conversation.
    * Monetize the blogs better. Max take a bow because your blog helps fuel Google’s $600+ share price by providing relevant content for them to index. People don’t search Google for Google content, they search it for OUR content.
    Adsense? Yes, but it’s a pittance on blogs.

    Yikes – this was a post, and I’ve relegated it to the comments where nobody will read it! If only I had…um…copy and paste!

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