Tuesday, September 04, 2007


The human intellect has lately been on my mind (pardon the recursion) and I'd like to share my thoughts.

Most of us isn't anything to write home about. We can see, but just a little bit of the spectrum. We can kind of hear, though not nearly as well as a lot of other mammals. And I believe we have a sense of smell, but, as I understand it, only on a technicality. Thinking is where it's at for us. Now don't get me wrong: I think we think great. Clearly it's gotten us places and I'm certainly not knocking human intellect. But it does seem to me we're too proud by half of our minds.

Intelligence was seen for many eons as our divine ingredient. While most educated people today don't believe that the all-powerful and perfect Creator Of the Universe has an appendix or a pair of thumbs, many still fancy that His mind was the image after which ours were created. Recently, Deism, mumbo jumbo, and certain interpretations of Spinoza have supposed an "Intelligence" to the "Universe" which, we are meant to believe, is of a like kind to our own (though infinitely greater in size and power). More recently still, science fiction writes of man-like intelligences belonging to gods, universes, and the beasts of alien worlds. It is generally our way in religion, mumbo jumbo, and fiction to paint "intelligence" as a Platonic Form apart from the rest of human anatomy. It is the perfect and only means of Really Getting Shit Done and it's available to worthy Gods, aliens, machines and men.

I've been thinking that's rather not the case at all. I've been thinking our intelligence is rather just as novel and particular as anything else about us. Thumbs, for example. Thumbs suit us fine, but they are by no means the pinnacle of grasping engineering. We have prehensile thumbs because, aside from other reasons, we started to walk on our feet and this allowed the lateral digit to drift proximally. The thumb is both novel in that it is not a priori an obvious thing to have, and it is particular in that it is entirely a function of our evolution. "Thumbs" are no great or ideal means of pinching. We would not expect to find them on an extraterrestrial or a universal creator, or indeed The Universe itself.

I submit that the mammalian intellect is both novel and particular in the same ways as the thumb. There is nothing obvious about the way our intellects are, and they are not the best design for the problem. To be clear, I am not referring only to the details of our minds, such as our capacities of memory or the way in which we process vision or the methods by which people go about reasoning. I mean all of our most fundamental functions - consciousness, memory, self-awareness, cognition, imagination, all of it - are just as novel and particular as the rest of us. Should we meet things from other worlds, we would be as likely to discover anything we would call an "intelligence" as we would be to discover anything remotely like a "thumb," or "appendix," or "prefrontal neocortex." This is not to say that these other beings would not be very complex and possibly capable of feats far in advance of our own. Space travel, time travel, anything you care to speculate. All achieved with systems wholly unlike the mammalian intellect.

I am personally of the opinion that we will meet many such strange systems, and sooner rather than later. Not in the stars of course. We will create them ourselves in silicon. Or our silicon children will create them for us. We might never know what "thought" is like for those machines, if they even experience any such sensation. But they will surpass all human benchmarks of acumen. They will be smarter than all of us put together. If it's fare to call them "smart," then they will be the smartest things ever. I am quite sure.

You know, you should really read Jeff Hawkins' book, On Intelligence.