One of the topics that came up a couple of times at this year’s TAM (The Amazing Meeting) was the subject of the evolution of intelligence. None of the speakers addressed the question as much as I’d have liked, or as much as I intend to, but I’ll try to give credit as best I can (without the benefit of having notes) when it comes up. The two speakers who spoke on this subject are PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins. Much of the inspiration in some areas (I’ll say which ones) come from founder of the Singularity Institute and the blog LessWrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky. I’ll try to include links to sources and additional reading suggestions as well.
I’m writing this for the purpose of articulating some thoughts on the idea/importance of intelligence (I’ll get around to refining that concept shortly) in the universe and here at home. The purpose of this isn’t really to educate, but more or less because I figured it’s a good idea to start writing my important thoughts down before I forget all of them. I plan to cover a number of topics. In short, I’ll touch on how intelligence came about on our planet, what I mean by intelligent, the probable guesses we can make about intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the spectrum of intelligence on earth and it’s relation to DNA and the implications of all of these things on the intentional designing of minds. I might branch off quite a bit and divulge into some free will stuff or something, or maybe I’ll write a different paper on other topics.
Let’s start by analyzing the concept of intelligence. As Yudkowsky points out, people tend to think “Einstein” when they think of intelligence rather than “human.” The reason that this is too narrow of a view is that humans have been intelligent, by any decent definition, since way before Einstein. Not only that, but we tend to define it within the scope of human intelligence, so we think “genius vs idiot” instead of “human vs grasshopper.” The point is that the spectrum of intelligence is much wider than we intuitively think because we’re used to defining it with reference to ourselves. If you give it a moment’s thought, it becomes obvious that animals like birds and squirrels are very intelligent when compared to amoebas. This raises a tangent point that I’ll indulge myself on. Skip the next two paragraphs if you’re not interested in my thoughts on the link between brain size and brain power.
I’ve been giving some thought lately to the relation between how big brains are and what they can do. It occurs to me that a squirrel has a capacity for dexterity and motion and spacial thinking that is at least close to (and probably exceeds in some areas) my own. For example, squirrels can use their fingers to perform delicate tasks as well as climb in all directions and angles. In addition, they can imagine their trajectory and their environment well enough to leap from tree to tree with such precision that I’ve only ever seen one squirrel die from a miscalculation in my lifetime. Of course, they do die by the dozens in my town every day by misjudging the best reaction to a moving car. Other animals do not have this problem. Just youtube something like “smart crows” and prepare to be surprised. They use traffic to open nuts for them, and then wait for the traffic light to change before they retrieve their prize. Specific examples aren’t really my point however.
What I want to focus on is that our brains are way, way bigger than a squirrel or a crow – or a spider, for that matter. And while we are no doubt the most intellectually powerful species on the planet, some other species are only a few steps behind us. However, while they’re ‘kinda smart,’ what I want to emphasize is the fact that many animals with tiny brains have mobility and dexterity skills that outclass us. What this must mean then is that whatever it takes to achieve intelligence like ours requires a lot of extra hardware. If the bit of my brain that makes me as tactile and smart (not to mention ALL of the other stuff like sight, touch, hearing, memory etc…) as a squirrel only takes up the same amount of space in my head as a squirrel’s brain, then the vast majority of my brain mass must go to higher-order brain power. Just something to think about. It seems that it doesn’t take a lot of hardware to make a brain that can do all of the basic sensory data processing and can move around with 3D model building, but it apparently takes a lot more to make something that can think like we can.
Back to intelligence. One way of pinning down a workable definition is to ask ourselves, “What does intelligence look like?” If we look at the animal kingdom, many species are capable of doing things like organizing and executing complex plans (sometimes in groups) to catch food and communicate meaningfully. Do these count as intelligence? Humanities ancestors have been doing this for millions of years. It’s certainly a type of intelligence. Another way to think about it is what would extra terrestrial visitors look for if they were looking for intelligence here? Or vice versa. Meaningful radio waves, as Dawkins and Tyson bring up in their discussion ‘The Poetry of Science,’ are certainly one thing that it takes intelligence to produce. If we are surveying another solar system, it would drastically reduce our search time if one of the planets (assuming there are more than one in any habitable zones) is covered in radio waves. Surveying solar system wont be as easy as looking at it from the edge and determining from there whether or not it contains life. Keep in mind that you can’t even see humanities reworking of our own planet from the moon. To see an analysis of what kind of telescopes/distances we’d need to determine if a planet was populated, see Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot (I wont bother finding which pages because you should just read the whole book)
More on track, what do we mean when we say “intelligence” and how useful is our colloquial use of the term?
identifying a problem -> thinking of a solution -> thinking of a way to implement the solution
Anyone can do the first two (almost anyone) but the last one is basically impossible. If it was doable, the major problems wouldn’t be problems anymore.