Inorganic Intelligence

AI. Artificial Intelligence. We’ve been writing about it, researching it, creating it, scared of it, delighted with it for decades.¬†However, I think the word “Intelligence”, like so many others, drifts across a large range of meanings and so I would like to record my view.

The first, and most common “mistake” is to equate intelligence with knowledge. People are often referred to as being intelligent when they can impress people with facts on a subject or range of subjects. This definition of intelligence makes the phrase artificial intelligence easy to accept because of course computers can store vast amounts of information and retrieve it quickly, giving an appearance of intelligence by this meaning.

A second meaning is to demonstrate a “thinking” skill. Playing chess, or winning at “Go” are the oft cited examples of artificial intelligence. But before we call it artificial intelligence, is it in fact intelligence?¬†I would say not. These are mathematical algorithms or game theory.

Nevertheless, despite these underwhelming interpretations of intelligence many people fear “AI” and believe it is just around the corner; the combination of mathematical technologies broadly categorised by neural networking, big data and machine learning combined with the physical technologies offering faster and faster processing, greater storage and even quantum computing have led people to believe that our very humanity is at threat.

It is wise to assess the risks, and who knows, we may one day give rise to artificial intelligence but I don’t think we are in danger.

I think there are a number of aspects to intelligence. In no particular order:

  • problem solving
  • awareness
  • creativity
  • harmlessness

This may look like an odd list and that is because it is very “human centric”. The intelligence I am trying to describe is a human one – a set of attributes against which we can compare non-human, particularly machine (inorganic) behaviours. We can imagine “alien” behaviours, a good example is in the book “Solaris” but their very “alienness” would make it impossible for us to comprehend if it was intelligent or not. We are doomed to measure everything only against what we can comprehend.

So, back to the list.

Problem solving is about goal or purpose. I think this is fundamentally tied in with evolution and survival. Being able to solve problems (think) bestows an evolutionary advantage, not just in terms of figuring out new ways to “eat” but new ways to evade predators or attack prey. This was beautifully demonstrated in the recent Blue Planet series with the reef octopus outsmarting the shark or the fish using tools to build a nest. We can see a whole spectrum of this kind of intelligence across the animal kingdom and we often refer to dogs, dolphins and whales as clever creatures. In this dimension, they really are. [In the human case, evolution may have gone to far and made our brains so big they are a threat to the ecosystem and life itself. Kurt Vonnegut explores this idea in “Galapagos”]

Awareness is along the lines of “emotional intelligence”; a sense of empathy, what impact your words and actions are having on the internal mental “state” of another. I’m not saying that this type of awareness must be used for “good”, which takes us down a route of bringing a moral dimension to intelligence. Perhaps a broader definition could include this, but harmlessness, discussed below is as far as I will go.

Creativity – something we like to thing we do well. Producing something from nothing. New ideas or new ways to communicate ideas. To overlap with awareness, creativity is directed methods to deliberately change the internal “state” of other individuals. Humour, art, music, a search for knowledge born of curiosity are all involved.

Harmlessness is about not destroying yourself. A bit like awareness but on your physical surroundings. This can be immediate surroundings, or the Universe as a whole. It can be over any time span from minutes to aeons. We would certainly consider ourselves more intelligent if we knew what impact out actions would have in a distant future. And we would not describe anything as intelligent which acted to destroy the environment which sustained it. Given our impact on the planet, this makes humans look pretty stupid; back to “Galapagos” again.

How is “AI” in computers and software stacking up to the attributes in my list. Not very well, I would say. Of course my list does not contain AI’s strong hand of knowledge or mathematical problem solving. Perhaps I am deliberately biasing my list in favour of humanity!

Problem solving: do AIs evolve? Do they write themselves? Are they driven to live long enough to pass their genetic information on to the next generation? Does not apply.

Awareness: I have yet to see a program demonstrate empathy for another.

Creativity: Never mind the Turing test, when was the last time a computer made you laugh, deliberately, by telling a joke. Actually, maybe programs are doing that to each other all the time and we just don’t know about it. Tron?

Harmlessness: when AI becomes self sufficient then we can see if it is harmless. Long way to go.

Intelligence cannot be artificial, it’s just a set of attributes of a system be it organic or inorganic. What we really mean by AI is how closely does a system which has not arisen from Darwinian evolution compare with us. Artifical intelligence should really be called inorganic intelligence. Of course, you could also take the view that we are just a stage in the evolutionary process which adapts into inorganic intelligence. “Sometimes men build robots, sometimes robots build men. What does it matter, really, whether one thinks with metal or with protoplasm?” to give the last word to the representative of the highest possible level of development (H.P.L.D.) in Stanislaw Lem’s “The Cyberiad”, Altruizine.