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Intelligence: Artificial or Not

April 2, 2012


Self-anointed gadfly Steve Davis entered into an interesting (and heated) exchange about the nature of intelligence following a blog post he published entitled The Intelligence Paradox. [Science 2.0, 4 March 2012] His post was based on some previous comments “made by Gerhard Adam in the discussion that followed a recent article on artificial intelligence.” Davis writes:

“Gerhard’s contribution is a lesson in the benefits of disciplined logical thought. Please read on:

‘ “Intelligence” didn’t just “wake up” one day. Its presence is visible from microbes up to the highest organisms. The notion that if you just cobble together enough pieces and intelligence will emerge is simply magical thinking.’

“And in response to another comment:

‘It just seems that intelligence is being viewed as some arbitrary “add-on” to biology. Like it’s some feature that is “out there” and has nothing to do with the organism in question.'”

Adam seems to be arguing (and Davis agreeing) that intelligence is biological; therefore, by definition, a non-biological system can never achieve true intelligence — only artificial intelligence. On the other hand, innovators like Ray Kurzweil argue that machines someday will become self-aware and achieve true intelligence. Larry Greenemeier states, “Artificial-intelligence (AI) researchers have no doubt that the development of highly intelligent computers and robots that can self-replicate, teach themselves and adapt to different conditions will change the world. Exactly when it will happen, how far it will go, and what we should do about it, however, are cause for debate.” [“What The Future Holds,” Scientific American, 302, 44 – 45, 2010] Before taking this discussion any further, let me assure you that I’m not going to be able to lay to rest arguments over the definition of “intelligence” — artificial or otherwise. Nevertheless, the discussion is stimulating.


Trent Nouveau reminds us, “In the 1800s, intelligence was typically associated with the ability to memorize facts and formulas. Today, intelligence is measured via IQ tests, with the average individual weighing in at about 100.

” [“Rethinking artificial intelligence,” TG Daily, 14 February 2012] If (and it’s a BIG IF) intelligence is simply a matter of crunching numbers or carrying out codes, then it makes sense to talk about computer artificial intelligence eventually becoming real intelligence. After all, it is a lot more common for people to think about computers crunching numbers than for computers to worry about the suffering caused by conflict in Syria. Surprisingly, however, Nouveau asserts that “the most common math computer programs score below 100 on IQ tests with number sequences.” But they could be getting smarter. Nouveau reports, “Researchers at the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, have coded a program capable of achieving an IQ score of 150.” Nouveau continues:

“Researcher Claes Strannegård notes, IQ tests are based on two types of problems: progressive matrices, which test the ability to perceive patterns in pictures, and numerical sequences, which measure the ability to detect patterns in numbers.”

Since computer programs weren’t particularly good at these types of problems, Strannegård took it as a challenge “to try and design ‘smarter’ computer programs. He told Nouveau, “We’re trying to make [software] that can discover the same types of pattern humans can see.” Nouveau explains:

“Essentially, Strannegård and his research group hypothesized that number sequence problems were only partly a matter of mathematics – as psychology remains a critical factor. ‘1, 2, and…? What comes next? Most people would say 3, but it could also be a repeating sequence like 1, 2, 1 or a doubling sequence like 1, 2, 4,’ said Strannegård.

 ‘Neither of these alternatives is more mathematically correct than the others. What it comes down to is that most people have learned the 1-2-3 pattern.’ As such, Strannegård’s team integrated a psychological model or algorithm of human patterns in their computer program – complete with a mathematical paradigm that emulates human-like problem solving. It is now capable of acing the standardized tests, implying an IQ of at least 150.”

Does that make the computer intelligent? Adam and Davis would vote in the negative. As Adam wrote:

“Intelligence is biology, because at the end of the day, you can build any kind of machine you like with whatever degree of sophistication technology allows and it can excel at its assigned task. But until you can build a machine that gives a damn, it is nothing but a set of human induced rules.”

I suspect a lot of people agree with Adam’s assessment, especially at the gut level. Strannegård, however, isn’t making extraordinary claims about his software. In fact, he admits computers using it have limitations, despite their MENSA-like IQ.

“‘Our [software is] beating the conventional math programs because we are combining mathematics and psychology. Our method can potentially be used to identify patterns in any data with a psychological component, such as financial data. But it is not as good at finding patterns in more science-type data, such as weather data, since the human psyche is not involved. [Nevertheless], we have developed a pretty good understanding of how the tests work. Now we want to divide them into different levels of difficulty and design new types of tests, which we can then use to design computer programs for people who want to practice their problem solving ability,’ Strannegård added.”

Returning to Davis’ post, his critics take umbrage with him was when he claims, “With those thoughts Gerhard was a whisker away from solving one of the great problems – what is intelligence?” Davis continues:

“The quotes in their entirety are useful, and should be kept in mind when considering the argument that I’m about to present, but let’s pick out the outstanding points.

‘”Intelligence” didn’t just “wake up” one day. Its presence is visible from microbes up to the highest organisms.”

‘We already know that rudimentary intelligence exists at the microbial level’

‘…the inescapable component of all of this is the distinction in biology that all “intelligence” is oriented around the survival and reproduction of the organism in question.’

‘Intelligence is biology,…’

“What makes these points outstanding? The fact that intelligence exists at all levels from micro-organisms through to blue whales, tells us that intelligence is a feature of life itself, similar to the other recognisable features of life; growth, metabolism, reproduction and homeostasis. But those seem to me to be in a different class altogether to intelligence. They are what we might call tangible features; they are relatively easy to observe and measure.”

Davis rhetorically asks, “Does this leave intelligence in a category of its own? Not at all.” Davis believes that Adam didn’t go far enough. He writes, “Here is the point Gerhard almost stumbled upon; if ‘intelligence is biology’ as he said, (correctly I believe) then intelligence is life.” Davis is using the following form of logic: Premise1: If A = B, Premise2: and B = C Logical connection: Then (apply principle of equivalence) Conclusion: A = C.” He understands that using such arguments can be challenging. He writes, “I can hear the howls of protest already!” He adds to the complexity of his argument by maintaining “that cooperation is life.” He then concedes, “At this point those who had trouble accepting that life is cooperation should have a stiff whisky, because they’re in for a rough ride.” I recommend that you read his entire post (as well as the comments that follow) to capture the richness of the discussion. To bolster his argument, Davis writes:

“The great Russian geographer Peter Kropotkin made the important point in Mutual Aid – A Factor in Evolution, that as a general rule the most social animals are the most intelligent animals. An observed increase in sociality generally goes hand in hand with an observable increase in intelligence. What is sociality but cooperation? The higher the level of cooperation, the higher the level of intelligence. But differing levels of cooperation/intelligence are not just seen between species. Cooperation becomes more complex and advanced as we move from cell to organism to community, and intelligence follows exactly the same pattern on that pathway also. The correlation between cooperation and intelligence is so close and so consistent, that for all practical purposes we can assume that they are the same concept. Intelligence is cooperation. It seems incongruous to link the two, but their dissimilarity is an illusion created by natural limits to the way we think. … It might be a little difficult to see the equivalence of intelligence and cooperation, but if we accept the reality that all life forms, from the first cooperating molecules to cells and organisms and communities are based on group activity, then we see that any initiation of cooperative activity anywhere, anytime, immediately creates a new living entity, a new community with an expanded vitality and intelligence. That intelligence and vitality did not come from nothing. The input was cooperation, so intelligence is cooperation.”

Although Davis’ arguments are based on the premise that all intelligence must be biologically based, his arguments about cooperation being intelligence and intelligence being life begs the question about whether computers, cooperating to learn, can generate real rather than artificial intelligence. I suspect Davis rejects that notion because it smacks of being able to create something out of nothing. He concludes:

“You can’t make something out of nothing. As Gerhard pointed out, ‘the notion that if you just cobble together enough pieces and intelligence will emerge is simply magical thinking.’ The intelligence did not simply emerge out of nowhere; it grew as an integral part of the cooperation. It’s not magical, it’s not mysterious, and it’s not complex. In fact, it’s as simple as the old saying that two heads are smarter than one. So why are two heads smarter than one? It’s not because two is greater than one, after all, if the two don’t cooperate they achieve nothing. Two heads are only better than one if they cooperate. The more cooperative the two, the smarter they become. Because intelligence is cooperation.”

I’ll let you be the judge about the soundness of Davis’ arguments. I will say that people cooperate to do a lot of dumb things that show a lack of intelligence rather than a increase in it. For most of things that people want computers to do, artificial intelligence will be enough to achieve those ends. Whether computers ever achieve self-awareness or genuine intelligence, I believe, remains open for debate. Even skeptics like Paul Allen and Mark Greaves write, “While we suppose this kind of singularity might one day occur, we don’t think it is near. In fact, we think it will be a very long time coming.” [“The Singularity Isn’t Near,” Technology Review, 12 October 2011] That means we should have plenty of time to carry on the debate. In the meantime, companies like mine will continue to use AI to improve business processes and insights. It’s the smart thing to do.

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