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Why I am not afraid of singularity anytime soon (Part 2): What is intelligence anyway?

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

Last time in the first part of this series "Why I am not afraid of singularity anytime soon", I argued that human stupidity poses a much more immediate threat to our existence than super intelligent artificial intelligence (AI). I explained how stupidity originates from our biases and heuristics, and their recurring challenges we need to overcome as a consequence. Now, before we dive into the second main reason for why we should not be afraid of super intelligent AI, this post provides a definition of intelligence as we know it now.

What is intelligence and why are we afraid of its extreme?

Since the surge of human civilization thousands of years ago, there has not been any other living species on our planet able to dominate the human species for us to go extinct. People have constantly been trying to understand nature, the world around them, to protect themselves and prevent anything bad from happening to them to survive. When you picture the vulnerable, naked human being in the pristine landscape of planet earth, there would have been no way we could survive the threats of physically bigger and stronger species such as elephants and panthers or threats from natural disasters beyond our control. Unless we could outsmart them.

The main reason for fear of singularity and (super intelligent) AI is the belief that such systems might be the first entities that could actually outsmart us - in contrary to other living organisms we know of thus far. "Robots taking over the world" or the milder version "robots taking our jobs" tap into deeper sentiments like "I will no longer be relevant" and "my existence will be made redundant". Can super intelligent AI indeed outsmart us and treat humans the same way we treat "lower level species"? To answer this question, we first need to understand what we mean by intelligence, or, intelligent behaviour.

Observing intelligence through Darwinian eyes

Lately, I started realizing that a key to exhibiting intelligence or intelligent behaviour is the ability to manipulate one's environment. For instance, given our limited physical strength, we found ways to enhance our abilities by turning earth's raw materials into useful tools that make us stronger. Whether to create a heat source with fire, displacing ourselves faster with non-living vehicles or manipulating conductive materials that eventually gave rise to digital computers. Finding new ways to manipulate things to our benefit reinforces our existence.

However, we are not the only organisms that show such behaviour. Take ants and bees, for example. These tiny creatures have inhabited earth for much longer than Homo sapiens. They survive through an incredible system of cooperation within their colonies and swarms to fetch nutrients and build homes from the materials accessible and applicable to their scale. Each worker bee's lifetime is dedicated to letting its swarm thrive. These are evolutionary success stories we could learn from.

We like to think that humans are the most intelligent species on earth, but intelligence is a relative quality that changes over time and space. Each species has its specific physique and limitations as a result from evolutionary adaptation to their respective environments. Just because we do not expect to witness ants or bees to build space shuttles to explore outer space, it does not necessarily mean that ants and bees are stupid. For human ambitions are irrelevant to them.

From our human point of view, the ability to speak and write eloquently, scrutinize nature in a systematic manner and create physical expressions of our inner worlds are all parts of what we, humans, find examples of intelligent behaviour. What we perceive to be beautiful and all other things that motivate our senses are irrelevant to non-human eyes. In the same spirit, maybe building honeycombs is the bee equivalent of humans building space shuttles. Yet, we may not truly grasp the passion and sophistication that such a building project entails for a bee colony.

It would therefore be much like comparing apples with pears to compare the human species with "lower level species" like ants or bees and unanimously conclude that humans evolved to be the most intelligent of all. However, we can look at the common characteristics of what makes some apples and pears taste better than others.

By applying this logic to defining intelligence, we can say that intelligence manifests itself in how an entity handles its environment. We need to look at how something behaves, given its physical boundaries, and see intelligence as a dimension that tells us something about the quality of how something measurable was executed. Was it done effectively? Was it done efficiently? Does it take the individual longer than average to solve a problem? Does the individual attempt multiple different strategies to achieve a goal or does it stick to only one approach?

How an individual does or does not find different ways of solving problems tells us a lot about its adaptability: its effectiveness in different circumstances. This level of adaptability gives rise to intelligence. Philosophizing even further: adaptability requires a level of creativity (and, if you like, serendipity or emergent properties - more on this later). Creativity can only flourish when there is motivation. And motivation follows from existence. Put in a Descartian way: I exist, therefore I want to keep existing in the most optimal way.

In this light, the hallmark of intelligence (in biological organisms) is finding the optimal, most energy- and time efficient ways to satisfy existential needs (e.g. getting nutrients). On an abstract level, intelligence is the ability to adapt to solve problems efficiently and effectively, given an entity's capacities.

I ended my previous post with the remark that "intelligence exists only relative to the entity's objective". For biological organisms, the natural objective is to sustain life. Since all biological organisms have an end date, the idea is to survive long enough to reproduce to continue living in the form of our offspring. All that an organism does is motivated by this primal instinct to survive and sustain life. Thus, for biological organisms, intelligence or intelligent behaviour exists only to serve the purpose of continuing existence.

Next time: Theoretical properties of super intelligence

Thus far, we have come to reason that intelligence is a quality to be understood from an evolutionary perspective and that it is relative to an entity's objective, physical capacities and environment. Hence, humans are not necessarily the most intelligent species on earth. Any concept of super intelligence would otherwise be inherently biased by the human perspective.

With this fundamental understanding of what intelligence is as we can derive form observing nature, we can think deeper about what "super intelligence" may be. In doing so, there are three philosophical, rather than technical questions I believe we need to answer:

  1. AI developed today lacks any existential motivation. Should it have any, however, to become super intelligent?

  2. In line with the previous question: should (super) AI be a direct reflection of biological functions? Or will it develop sixth and seventh senses, sensory modalities that we will never grasp as human beings?

  3. Why would a new artificial super intelligent species be incapable of coexisting with other biological life, the same way that most humans co-exist exist with lower level species? Why should we, for instance, assume something "super intelligent" to be completely destructive to its environment?

Since these are each major questions to write about, I will elaborate on them in the next part. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this beautiful poem from William Blake that may put things into perspective.

Little Fly

Thy summers play,

My thoughtless hand

Has brush'd away.

Am not I

A fly like thee?

Or art not thou

A man like me?

For I dance

And drink & sing:

Till some blind hand

Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life

And strength & breath:

And the want

Of thought is death;

Then am I

A happy fly,

If I live,

Or if I die.

Poem by William Blake


Disclaimer: none of my work is sponsored or intended to serve any other purpose than to share thoughts about the world, science and society. I welcome you to share your opinion on the topics discussed in the comment section below.

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